Mental health ill-effects from spanking?

“There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do
She gave them some broth without any bread.
She whipped them all soundly, and sent them to bed.”

No one is credited as the writer of this popular nursery rhyme. However, if a modern-day children’s social worker were to pay attention to the last line, it would be cause for further investigation. As evidenced by the above Mother Goose rhyme, spanking of children has been and continues to be a prevalent form of discipline.

Although controversial, recent studies show that 55% of American mothers report spanking their children by the age of 3 years old. Leslie Simons reports older data from Straus and Stewart in that spanking of African American children has been even more controversial with research suggesting that African American parents spank their children at higher rates than others.

A 1998 report states that African Americans are three times more likely to spank than European Americans.  This number may have grown or decreased since then. While most researchers all agree that spanking may occur more frequently in black homes, there are conflicting data as to whether African American children exhibit more acting-out behavior due to being spanked than their European American counterparts.

Given the data that African Americans tend to spank more, it is possible that bias of these parents occurs when engaging with African American families who are involved with child welfare agencies. This issue has become a problem in that African American parents feel demonized and humiliated when being investigated by child welfare workers to try to persuade them to practice less rigid, harsh and physical discipline. Because this style of discipline is different from the opinions of mental health and child welfare professionals, African American parents feel as though they are labeled criminals and this leads to distrust of the very agencies designed to help them.

Because the various research is conflicted on the effects of spanking in African American families, further study is necessary. Current studies seem to only be focused on African American families in low-income areas, where acting out cases can be tied closely with depressive symptoms and stress related to their poverty, rather than being associated with being spanked. Therefore, the purpose of this study is to examine the attitudes, negative or positive, of African American parents (across the socio-economic spectrum) towards spanking, and its effectiveness. The study will also evaluate African American parents’ views of child welfare agencies, and whether its stance on spanking helps or hurts African American families. In addition, African American parents will be asked their views on cultural norms that affect their decision to spank or not.

By Delmar Devers, Painted Brain intern. You can visit his blog at SingingSocialWorkerBlog

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