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Journal of Family Violence, Vol. 13, No.

1, 1998

To Spank or Not To Spank: The Effect of Situation and Age of Child on Support for Corporal Punishment
Clifton P.

This study examined college students' attitudes toward spanking as a function of the situational context and age of the child. As expected, respondents were more likely to find spanking appropriate for preschool (ages 3-4) and early school age children (ages 7-8) than for older children (ages 11-12). Physical punishment was also viewed as more suitable when the child's misbehavior was disrespectful (talking back to a parent), or violated strongly held norms (hitting a playmate, stealing), and less appropriate for age-related or less serious misbehavior. Gender and race differences emerged, with males and blacks showing more support for corporal punishment than females and whites. In general, findings revealed strong support for spanking, although there was evidence of some ambivalence, especially among white and female respondents. Implications of the findings are discussed.
KEY WORDS: childrearing attitudes; corporal punishment; physical punishment of children; spanking.

INTRODUCTION The physical punishment of children is highly normative in the United States, both with regard to its acceptance and its practice. Virtually all parents spank their children (Straus, 1991; Wauchope and Straus, 1990), and the vast majority of American adults favors corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique (Flynn, 1994).
'Department of Sociology, University of South Carolina Spartanburg, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29303. 21
0885.7482/98/0300.0021$15,00/0 1998 Plenum Publishing Corporation



Not surprisingly, the more a parent favors corporal punishment, the more likely that parent is to use it with his or her children (Straus, 1991). Understanding individuals' attitudes toward spanking seems to be an important component of predicting who may actually physically punish their children. Given the growing evidence of the potentially harmful consequences of "ordinary" spanking (e.g., Straus, 1991; Straus and Gimpel, 1992; Straus and Kaufman Kantor, 1994), many scholars are arguing for the eventual elimination of physical punishment as a disciplinary strategy (Straus, 1994). Reducing use of corporal punishment will likely depend in part on addressing the powerful normative endorsement spanking enjoys among the general public, and on knowing under what circumstances individuals approve or disapprove of its use. However, veiy little is known about when most people think spanking is appropriate. Most researchers have studied attitudes toward physical punishment by focusing on more general attitudes toward spanking, attempting to assess support for corporal punishment in a broader normative context (e.g., Deley, 1988; Ellison and Sherkat, 1992; Flynn, 1994). Others have looked at more specific aspects of attitudes, using such items as whether one favors spanking or slapping a 12-year-old child, or whether one intends to spank one's own children (e.g., Graziano and Namaste, 1990; Straus et al, 1980). Only a few studies have examined how support for spanking varies depending on the contextual situation (Grasmick et al, 1992; Ruane, 1993) or the contextual situation in combination with the age of the child (McCormick, 1992). It is not completely clear how support for spanking generally is related to support for spanking in specific situations and at different ages. It seems likely that those who endorse a general spanking norm will be more likely to find corporal punishment acceptable in a wide variety of settings. However, there may also be many individuals who favor spanking generally, but who actually support its application in varied limited situations and/or with children of certain ages. Conversely, it is possible to imagine those who oppose spanking as a general rule, but may consider it necessary in certain unusual or special occasions. The present study surveyed college students about the appropriateness of spanking children at three different ages: 3-4 years, 7-8 years, and 11-12 years and in six different situations. The purpose of this study is threefold: (a) to determine how attitudes toward spanking vary by the situation and the age of the child; (b) to explore differences along these dimensions on the basis of gender and race; and (c) to see how general attitudes toward spanking relate to more specific beliefs about when and for whom it is appropriate.

To Spank or Not To Spank


College students are a significant, yet problematic population to study. Because of their status (young, never-married, and without children), students' views toward corporal punishment can be assessed before they become parents. However, it is important to remember that one's attitude toward spanking may change as a result of becoming a parent. Further, a favorable attitude toward spanking does not guarantee that the behavior itself will be employed. Nonetheless, knowledge of the beliefs of future parents (and citizens who will influence social norms as well as policy), can be of great benefit to our understanding of this issue.


The incidence rate for physical punishment peaks at about age 3 or 4, with nearly 80% of parents reporting use of physical punishment. Incidence of spanking declines with age, though nearly half of parents report physically punishing children as old as 12 (Wauchope & Straus, 1990). Less is known about how attitudes toward spanking are related to the age of the child. However, an earlier study found that favorable attitudes are not limited to the corporal punishment of young children. Between 70% and 77% of respondents in the First National Family Violence Survey believed that spanking or slapping a 12-year-old child was at least somewhat necessary, normal, and good (Straus et al, 1980). The three studies that have examined support for corporal punishment in various contexts have involved diverse and specific populations. Only McCormick (1992) looked at how attitudes were related to both situation and age of child. McCormick (1992) surveyed 619 family physicians and pediatricians in Ohio about their attitudes about "striking the child's buttocks or hand with an open hand lightly, leaving no mark except transient redness" (p. 3163). The respondents were presented with three different scenarios child refuses to go to bed at bedtime, child runs into the street without looking, and child hits playmate and with three different ages 2, 5, and 8 years old. For all three ages, physicians were least likely to favor spanking for relatively minor misbehavior (refusing to go to bed), and most likely to favor spanking when the child's misbehavior was dangerous (running into the street). And while a minority of physicians supported corporal punishment in any single scenario, 67% favored spanking in at least one scenario. While no dramatic differences in attitudes appeared based on the age of the child, this may be due to the fairly narrow age range used. Family physicians were more likely than pediatricians (70% compared to 59%) to support corporal punishment.



Grasmick et al, (1992) surveyed a random sample of Oklahoma City residents about their attitudes toward corporal punishment in schools. Respondents were asked in five different situations whether "teachers should spank school children." Of the five scenarios presented, respondents were most likely to favor spanking a child that deliberately injured another child, followed by stealing from the school or another child, using obscene language, talking back to the teacher, and skipping school without a reason. Two thirds agreed that spanking was appropriate when used against a child who had intentionally hurt another child, but only one-fifth agreed that children who skipped school should be physically punished. No target age for the child was given. Finally, Ruane (1993) examined the "social context of tolerance of force" among students at four northeastern colleges. Students were asked to rate how wrong it is to slap a 6- or 7-year-old child in 25 different scenarios. Students were most likely to approve slapping a child for disrespectful behavior that challenges authority or violent behavior (disrespectful force), and least likely to tolerate force used on a child who is noncooperative or displaying age-related misbehavior (childish force). The five scenarios with the lowest disapproval ratings were: holds a pillow over baby sister's face, threatens the parent with a knife, hits the parent first, deliberately breaks the father's camera, and calls the grandmother an old bitch. The five scenarios with the highest disapproval ratings were: child has not cleaned his/her room, parent is furious, parent is having problems at work, child is dawdling and makes the parents late, and child breaks the father's camera by being careless. Yet for the remaining 60% of the scenarios, Ruane identifies the typical response of her subjects as reflecting neither approval nor disapproval of force, but ambivalence toward its use. These scenarios include behaviors that Ruane characterizes as typical of parent-child interaction "disobedience, unreasonableness, tantrums, insolence, inattentiveness, whining, defiance, or school misbehavior. . . . The data suggest that the social audience is equivocal about the appropriateness of force as a way of counteracting such behaviors. If such behaviors are typical of family dynamics, and if these behaviors elicit ambivalent reactions to parental force, then the likelihood of reducing tolerance of force may be questionable. To reduce tolerance for such parental force may require a change in values" (Ruane, 1993, pp. 299-300).

To Spank or Not To Spank


Gender and Race Some studies have identified gender differences in attitudes (e.g., Grasmick et al, 1992), while others have found no differences. In some instances, differences between males and females disappear in multivariate analyses (Ellison and Sherkat, 1993; Flynn, 1994). In general, when gender differences have been found, males have been more likely to support spanking than females. The effect of race on spanking attitudes appears to be stronger than that of gender. Studies have shown blacks to have more favorable attitudes toward spanking than whites (e.g., AIvy, 1987), even after controlling for relevant socioeconomic variables (e.g., Flynn, 1994). However, one study, using data from the 1975 National Family Violence Survey, examined race differences in black and white parents' approval of slapping or spanking a 12-year-old child. Cazenave and Straus (1990) found no race differences, with 83% of Blacks and 8 1 % of whites expressing approval. AIvy (1987) compared black Head Start parents' beliefs about spanking with those of low income white and higher income white parents of preschoolers. He found that white parents, particularly higher income whites, were ambivalent about spanking, and reported spanking out of anger or as a last resort. Black parents, on the other hand, viewed spanking more positively, and were much more likely to see physical punishment as a valuable tool for teaching such central lessons as obedience to authority, appropriate social behavior, and right from wrong.

METHODS Sample Undergraduates {n = 285) in introductory psychology and sociology classes at a public southeastern university served as subjects for this study. During the class period, students filled out a 10-page questionnaire covering their experiences with and attitudes toward corporal punishment, as well as other social and psychological items. The questionnaire took approximately 25 min to complete. Since a significant majority of the sample consisted of traditional college students, it was important to control for race, marital status, parental status, and age. Thus, the sample was restricted to students who were black or white, never-married, nonparents, and under the age of 25. This reduced the total number of subjects to 207.



With regard to demographic characteristics, the sample was 63.8% female and 84.1% white. Nearly two thirds of respondents' fathers (64.3%) and 70% of mothers had less than a college degree. Approximately seven out of eight students (86.3%) were Protestant.

Measures Spanking attitudes were measured by asking respondents whether it was appropriate to spank a child of three different age levels: 3 or 4 years, 7 or 8 years, and 11 or 12 years in six different situations ignoring a request to clean his/her room, running into the street without looking, taking something that did not belong to him/her, misbehaving in public, talking back to his/her parent, and hitting one of his/her playmates. Possible responses to each item ranged from strongly disagree (0) to strongly agree (3). For each age group, the responses could be summed to form three spanking attitudes subscales one for a younger child (preschool), one for a middle child (school age), and one for an older child (near teen). Subscale scores ranged from 0 to 18, with higher scores indicating more favorable attitudes toward corporal punishment. Differences in spanking attitudes on the basis of gender and race (black/white) were analyzed using two repeated measures analyses of variance. In addition, specific spanking attitudes as defined above were also examined as function of support for corporal punishment in general. Such normative support was measured by asking whether subjects strongly agreed (3), agreed (2), disagreed (1), or strongly disagreed (0) that "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking."

RESULTS Table I presents the percentages who think spanking is appropriate for each of the six scenarios at each of the three ages. For both the younger child and the middle child, spanking is viewed as appropriate by a majority of respondents for all situations except when a child ignores a request to clean his/her room. For the older child, less than half of the sample favors spanking in four of the six situations. Only stealing and talking back to a parent were seen by a majority (60%) as being suited to the use of physical punishment. Interestingly, in all but one scenario hitting a playmate spanking was seen as most fitting for a 7- or 8-year-old child.

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For all three age groups, taking something that did not belong to the child and talking back to the parent were seen as the most appropriate situations for spanking. The two scenarios where spanking was viewed as least suitable for all three age groups were ignoring a request to clean one's room and running into the street without looking. When considering all six situations combined, spanking is seen as most appropriate for children of the two younger ages. The percentage of respondents who agree with spanking in at least one of the scenarios was 90% for a 3- to 4-year-old child, 83.1% for a 7- to 8-year-old, and 66.7% for an 11- to 12-year old.

Effect of Gender

Table II examines gender differences in attitudes toward spanking based on situation and age of the child. In general, the results follow the patterns discussed above. Yet for all scenarios and at all ages, males have more favorable attitudes toward spanking than females. Over 90% of male respondents agree that it is appropriate to spank a younger child (97.3%) or a middle child (92.0%) child in at least one of the six situations. The comparable figures for female respondents are 84.1% and 78.0%, respectively. For an older child, 70.7% of males and 64.4% of females supported spanking in at least one of the scenarios. In order to more fully assess the relationship between gender and age of child, a repeated measures analysis of variance was conducted using the three spanking subscale scores. Gender served as the between-subjects factor and age of child was the within-subjects factor. The means for males and females for each of the three ages are presented in Table II. The analysis revealed significant main effects for gender {F[l, 396] = 4.46,/J = .0359), and for age level (F[2, 396] = 16.68, p = .0001). Across the three age groups, males had significantly more favorable attitudes toward spanking, with an overall mean of 10.1, compared with 8.9 for females. Both males and females most strongly favored spanking 7- to 8-year olds (mean = 10.1), followed by 3- to 4-year-olds (mean = 9.3), and lastly 11- to 12-year-olds (mean = 8.6), with all three means being significantly different from each other. There was no gender by age interaction effect (F[2, 396] = .31, p = .7367).

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Effect of Race

Comparisons of spanking attitudes on the basis of race are presented in Table III. Although the general patterns identified previously persist, there are some interesting differences. In every scenario except one, blacks were more likely to favor spanking than whites. With the exception of a 3- to 4-year old child who fails to clean his or her room, a majority of black respondents supported spanking in every other situation at every age. As the child gets older, the disparity between blacks and whites increases, particularly at the oldest level. For an 11- to 12-year-old child, the percentage of whites agreeing with spanking ranges from 30.8% to 56.9%. For blacks, the percentages range from 56.4% to 81.8%. At this age, 84.8% of blacks think spanking is appropriate in at least one of the situations, compared with 63.2% of whites. At every age level, whites are most likely to support physical punishment when a child talks back to a parent, steals, or hits a playmate. Two of these three talking back and stealing are also considered highly appropriate by black respondents for using spanking. Although hitting a playmate was also seen as justifying spanking by blacks, black respondents consistently saw spanking as even more appropriate for a child who misbehaves in public. As with gender, a repeated measures analysis of variance using the age-related spanking subscales scores as the dependent measure was conducted to more fully assess the impact of race on spanking attitudes, with race serving as the between-subjects factor. The means for blacks and whites at each age level are found in Table III. The analysis revealed significant main effects for race (F[l,396] = 6.95,/? = .0090), age level (F[2,396] = 6.55, p = .0016), as well as a significant race by age of child interaction (F[5,46], p = .0046). Across all three age groups, blacks had significantly more favorable attitudes toward spanking than whites. The overall mean for blacks was 11.1, compared with 9.0 for whites. When examining the effect of race at each age group, the results reveal no race effect for the youngest age level (p = .1731). However, blacks are significantly more likely than whites to approve of spanking a 7- to 8-year-old child (p = .0286) or an 11- to 12-year-old child (p = .0010). When looking at whites only, the spanking attitudes at all three ages are significantly different from each other (p = .0001). For blacks, attitudes toward spanking a 3- to 4-year-old child are significantly different from those toward the other two ages (p = .0179), but there are no differences in attitudes between 7- and 8-year-olds and 11- and 12-year-olds.

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The final analysis examines the relationship between general normative support for spanking (favor vs. oppose) and more specific beliefs about the situations and ages of children when spanking is appropriate. Those respondents who strongly agreed or agreed with the statement "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking" are defined as favoring spanking; those who disagreed or strongly disagreed will be defined as opposing spanking. Table IV presents the percentage of respondents who think spanking is appropriate in each scenario and age-level, as a function of whether one favors or opposes spanking generally. It is, of course, not surprising that those who endorse corporal punishment broadly are more likely to support its use in specific circumstances, and that is what was found. For those who were opposed to spanking, less than half thought it suitable to hit a child for any reason in either of the younger age categories, and less than a third supported spanking an 11to 12-year-old, regardless of the situation. Yet two-thirds (68.8%)of the respondents who opposed spanking generally agreed with the appropriateness of spanking in at least one of the scenarios for a 3- to 4-year-old child, and over half (56.2%) agreed with spanking a 7- to 8-year-old in at least one of the six situations. This compared with agreement of 98.6% and 95.7%, respectively, among those who favored spanking. The greatest disparity existed in attitudes toward hitting an older child. More than eight out of ten (82.7%) respondents supported physical punishment for at least one of the misbehaviors for an 11- to 12-year-old child, compared with only 35.9% of those opposed to spanking. Examination of the correlations between general spanking attitude and each of the three age subscales reveals a stronger relationship between normative beliefs and attitudes toward hitting children in the younger age groups. Those who agreed that disciplining a child with a good, hard spanking was sometimes necessary were more likely to agree with spanking a 3to 4-year-old (r = .63), a 7- to 8-year-old (r - .60), and to a lesser extent, an 11- to 12-year-old (r = .48).

The findings from this study revealed favorable attitudes toward the physical punishment of children, but support for spanking varied depending on the nature of the misbehavior and the age of the child. In general, college students believed spanking was more appropriate for serious violations, such as stealing, talking back to parents, and hitting a playmate, and less

To Spank or Not To Spank


appropriate for ignoring a request to clean one's room. This supports Ruane's (1993) conclusions that suggested a higher tolerance for parental use of force against children for behaviors that are disrespectful and challenge authority, and low tolerance for use of physical punishment against childish, or age-related misbehaviors. Approval of physical punishment for a child who has hit a playmate appears to include a confusing and contradictory message. If it is permissible to hit children who hit others in order to teach them that hitting is wrong, then perhaps children may learn a lesson exactly opposite from the one intended namely, that violence is acceptable. If these students carry this attitude with them into parenthood, then it is likely that violence will continue to be a routine part of American families. Respondents were also more likely to support spanking younger or middle children, as opposed to older children. It was interesting that respondents often expressed greater approval of spanking a 7- to 8-year-old child than a 3- to 4-year-old. Even though data show that incidence of spanking declines after age 3 or 4, these results are not contradictory. First, belief in the appropriateness of physical punishment is different from when it may be employed. Second, the apparent willingness to hit 7- or 8-yearolds may indicate that the respondents have greater expectations of appropriate behavior from children who may be perceived as old enough to "know better," yet young enough to still control physically. Males report more favorable attitudes toward spanking than females at every age level in every scenario. The effect of gender, while significant, was not dramatic given the sample size. Such differences may be best described in relation to the midpoint of each subscale, which was 9. All three of the male subscale means were above the midpoint, while two of the three female means fell just below it. Again, using Ruane's notion of ambivalence, the data suggest that females may be more ambivalent about spanking than males. This is not surprising, given that males are more likely to have been spanked as children (Wauchope and Straus, 1990), and that receiving physical punishment as a child, particularly for males, is related to favoring it as an adult (Owens and Straus, 1975). Future studies should examine how the gender of the child affects attitudes toward corporal punishment. Several interesting differences emerged with regard to race. Black respondents indicated a greater approval of physical punishment for virtually every situation at every age. The race disparity is particularly apparent when considering older children. Blacks were just as likely to favor spanking an 11- to 12-year-old as a 7- to 8-year-old, whereas among whites, support for spanking children in the oldest age group dropped significantly. In addition, black respondents were also more likely than whites to support spanking for public misbehavior.





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These findings reinforce Alvy's (1987) notion that blacks may have less ambivalence about spanking than whites, especially regarding children at older ages. According to Lassiter (1987) a number of factors, including the stress blacks experience in a white, hostile society, along with the legacy of slavery and the experience of blacks in the rural south from 1865 to 1940, have led to a greater acceptance of physical punishment among blacks. As a result of these shared experiences, black parents believe it is critically important to instill obedience and respect for authority in their children, and favor the use of physical punishment to accomplish these ends. This may also explain why black respondents were more likely to favor spanking a child, even an older child, who misbehaves in public. Perhaps from their own experiences and socialization, blacks understand that a child who misbehaves in public would be viewed not as just a bad child, but as a bad "black" child. Consequently, blacks may feel greater pressure to secure proper behavior in public from their children, and may favor using corporal punishment to do so, regardless of the age of the child. However, any conclusions regarding race differences should be made cautiously due to the small number of black students in the sample. As expected, general spanking attitudes generally predict more specific attitudes those who favor spanking generally tend to report dramatically greater support for physical punishment in all contexts and for all ages. Yet once again, some attitudinal ambivalence is revealed. Even a majority of those who were against spanking generally were able to find at least one situation where spanking a 3- to 4-year-old or a 7- to 8-year-old was seen as appropriate. These tended to be more serious examples of misbehavior either disrespectful actions (stealing, hitting a playmate, or talking back to a parent) or dangerous ones (running into the street without looking). Given that spanking not only is accepted, but expected of parents, it is not surprising that even parents who oppose physical punishment are able to identify certain circumstances in which they would approve its use. Similarly, even those who favor spanking generally tend to support its use primarily with children in the younger age groups. Thus, when studies using a general or normative statement to measure attitudes toward spanking report strong approval, perhaps this approval is more specifically directed at preschool or young school age children who have engaged in fairly severe misbehaviors. The generalizability of the current findings is limited by the nature of the sample. These subjects were overwhelmingly southern and Protestant (and most likely conservative Protestant), two social characteristics that have been found to be positively related to both the use (Giles-Sims et al, 1995) and approval (Ellison and Sherkat, 1993; Flynn, 1994; Wiehe, 1990)



of corporal punishment. Studies conducted using respondents in other regions and/or with more diverse characteristics may yield different results. In addition, since these were traditional college students young, single, and childless their attitudes toward physical punishment may change once they become older, marry, and have children. And even if their beliefs remain relatively constant, that does not necessarily ensure that their use of spanking will be consistent with their attitudes. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the normative support for spanking in populations such as this one. Many of these students are not far from becoming parents themselves, and they will soon face decisions about whether and when to use physical punishment. Despite some misgivings by some groups and in certain circumstances, it appears that spanking will continue to enjoy strong normative endorsement among the next generation of parents.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This research was funded in part by a grant from the Teaching and Productive Scholarship Committee at the University of South Carolina Spartanburg. The author wishes to thank Judith Penny for providing the statistical analyses.

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Lassiter, R. F. (1987). Child rearing in black families: Child-abusing discipline. In Hampton, R. L. (ed.). Violence in the Black Family: Correlates and Consequences, Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, pp. 39-54. McCormick, K. F. (1992). Attitudes of primary care physicians toward corporal punishment. / Am. Med. Assoc. 267: 3161-3165. Owens, D. J., and Straus, M. A. (1975). The social structure of violence in childhood and approval of violence as an adult. Aggress. Behav. 1: 193-211. Ruane, J. M. (1993). Tolerating force: A contextual analysis of the meaning of tolerance. Sociological Inq. 63: 293-304. Straus, M. A. (1991). Discipline and deviance: Physical punishment of children and violence and other crime in adulthood. Social Probl. 38: 133-154. Straus, M. A. (1994). Should the use of corporal punishment by parents be considered child abuse? Yes. In Mason, M. A., and Gambrill, E. (eds.). Debating Children's Lives:

Current Controversies on Children and Adolescents, Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA,

pp. 197-203. Straus, M. A., and Gimpel, H. S. (1992). Corporal punishment by parents and economic achievement: A theoretical model and some preliminary data. Paper presented at the 1992 meeting of the American Sociological Association, Pittsburgh, PA. Straus, M. A., and Kaufman Kantor, G. (1994). Corporal punishment of adolescents by parents: A risk factor in the epidemiology of depression, suicide, alcohol abuse, child abuse, and wife beating. Adolescence 29: 543-561. S t r a u s , M. A., G e l l e s , R. J., & S t e i n m e t z , S. K. (1980). Behind Closed Doors, Doubleday/Anchor, New York. Wauchope, B., and Straus, M. A. (1990). Physical punishment and physical abuse of American children: Incidence rates by age, gender, and occupational class. In Straus, M. A., and Gelles, R. J. (eds.). Physical Violence in American Families: Risk Factors and Adaptations to Violence in 8,145 Families, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, NJ, pp. 133-148. Wiehe, V. R. (1990). Religious influence on parental attitudes toward the use of corporal punishment. J. Fam. Viol. 5: 173-186.