Parents who use warmth instead of spanking foster greater social competence in their children

Parents should continue to avoid spanking and to use positive parenting techniques such as warmth in order to foster positive behaviors in their children, according to a recent study published online this April in the Journal of Marriage and Family.

Decades of research have found links between parents’ use of spanking and an increased likelihood of negative outcomes for children, such as antisocial behavior. Spanking is thought to increase antisocial behavior because it models aggression and does not teach children why their behavior was wrong or what alternative behaviors are appropriate.

Despite the negative child outcomes associated with spanking, some academics have defended spanking as an effective means of discipline, and a significant proportion of U.S. parents regularly use spanking to discipline children. Furthermore, little attention has been paid to whether spanking promotes desirable child behaviors.

In contrast to spanking, maternal warmth includes behaviors such as affection, positive reinforcement, and verbal responsiveness to the child. These behaviors have been shown to promote the creation of trust and reciprocity between parents and children and the development of children’s social competence. In addition, maternal warmth has been associated with fewer oppositional child behaviors, better child self-regulation, and fewer child behavior problems.

The study, by Inna Altschul (University of Denver), Shawna Lee (University of Michigan) and Elizabeth Gershoff (University of Texas at Austin), investigated whether spanking or warmth predicted change in young children’s aggressive and socially competent behaviors over time.

The study used information from 3,279 families with young children who participated in a longitudinal study of urban families. It assessed mothers’ use of spanking and maternal warmth, and subsequently their child’s aggressive behavior and social competence. Psychosocial risk factors, socioeconomic and demographic characteristics and child characteristics were also controlled for.

The results revealed that spanking predicted child aggression but was not being associated with children’s social competence. In contrast, maternal warmth predicted children’s greater social competence but was not associated with aggression. Warmth was a significantly stronger predictor of children’s social competence than spanking.

The researchers concluded, “These findings indicate parents should continue to avoid spanking and to use positive parenting techniques such as warmth in order to foster positive behaviors in their children.” They also suggested, “Even if parents use both warmth and spanking, the benefits of warmth with regard to children’s social competence may be undermined by the increased child aggression associated with spanking.”