Background: Parents' use of physical discipline has generated controversy related to concerns that its use is associated with adjustment problems such as aggression and delinquency in children. However, recent evidence suggests that there are ethnic differences in associations between physical discipline and children's adjustment. This study examined race as a moderator of the link between physical discipline and adolescent externalizing behavior problems, extending previous research beyond childhood into adolescence and considering physical discipline at multiple points in time.
Methods: A representative community sample of 585 children was followed from pre-kindergarten (age 5) through grade 11 (age 16). Mothers reported on their use of physical discipline in the child's first five years of life and again during grades 6 (age 11) and 8 (age 13). Mothers and adolescents reported on a variety of externalizing behaviors in grade 11 including aggression, violence, and trouble at school and with the police.
Results: A series of hierarchical linear regressions controlling for parents' marital status, socioeconomic status, and child temperament revealed significant interactions between physical discipline during the child's first five years of life and race in the prediction of 3 of the 7 adolescent externalizing outcomes assessed and significant interactions between physical discipline during grades 6 and 8 and race in the prediction of all 7 adolescent externalizing outcomes. Regression slopes showed that the experience of physical discipline at each time point was related to higher levels of subsequent externalizing behaviors for European American adolescents but lower levels of externalizing behaviors for African American adolescents.
Conclusions: There are race differences in long-term effects of physical discipline on externalizing behaviors problems. Different ecological niches may affect the manner in which parents use physical discipline, the meaning that children attach to the experience of physical discipline, and its effects on the adjustment of children and adolescents.