Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 14-December-2007, Vol 120 No 1267
Punitive parenting practices of contemporary young parents
Lianne J Woodward, David M Fergusson, Anna Chesney, L John Horwood
Family violence (particularly violent behaviour towards children) is a major public health issue in New Zealand. Compared to other developed nations, New Zealand has the third highest rate of child deaths due to maltreatment, with an average of 1.2 children per 100,000 dying at the hands of an adult each year.1,2
In addition, large numbers of children are hospitalised and/or referred to child protection services annually as a consequence of actual or suspected physical abuse. For example, during 2003, 116 children were hospitalised, and a further 33,000 (or 4% of all children in New Zealand) were referred to Child Youth and Family services.3
In the past year, concerns about these high rates of child physical abuse have resulted in protracted debates about the rights of all parents to physically punish their children. This debate has centred on the rights of parents to use physical punishment versus the rights of children not to experience such treatment.
In contrast, comparatively little attention has been given to the extent to which New Zealand children are exposed to physical punishment and/or abuse. For this paper, child physical punishment is defined as the use of physical force by a parent to cause pain but not injury for the purpose of correction or control such as smacking on the hand or bottom.4 Further along the continuum, physical abuse involves parental actions that are likely to cause injury to a child irrespective of actual intent, for example actions resulting in minor bruises, severe fractures, or death.5
Existing evidence suggests that physical punishment is widely endorsed and used by New Zealand parents to discipline their children, with various studies indicating that around 70% of children are exposed to physical punishment and 6% to severe violence including uncontrolled hitting, punching and choking that resulted in injury and/or lasting bruises.6–10
Although this research has helpfully highlighted the widespread use of physical punishment, it has primarily described New Zealand parenting practices between 1960 and 1990. Also most of these studies were heavily reliant on the use of retrospective measures of childhood physical punishment/abuse which are prone to unreliability due to memory difficulties and recall bias.
Such measures also provide limited information about the exposure of very young children to physical punishment which is unfortunate given the over-representation of infants and toddlers in national child injury and abuse statistics.1
Finally, existing studies have focused primarily on general population samples as opposed to high risk samples where child physical punishment/abuse is more common.11,12 Developing a better understanding of the rates of physical punishment and abuse amongst high risk parent groups is important to help inform current public health policy, as well as to assist the development of more effective intervention strategies for reducing rates of family violence particularly amongst those at greatest risk.
This study describes the punitive parenting practices of a cohort of 25-year-old parents with children aged 0 to 15 years. Given that younger parents are at increased risk of physically punishing or abusing a child,13 parent, child, and family factors associated with the use of harsh and severe physical punishment in this high-risk sample were also examined.
Sample—Data were collected as part of the 25-year follow-up assessment of the Christchurch Health and Development Study (CHDS). The CHDS is a longitudinal study of a birth cohort of young people born in the Christchurch urban region during mid-1977 and then studied at regular intervals to age 25.14. At age 25, all cohort members who had become biological parents or who were parenting a non-biological child as a step or foster parent were asked to participate in a separate parenting and family life interview. Both resident and non-resident parents were included. A total of 174 parents participated in this interview (75% of those eligible).
The present analysis is based on the sub-sample of 155 parents (110 women, 45 men) who were living full-time (resident) with at least one dependent child. These parents were caring for an average of 1.8 children (range: 1 to 6). One in 7 (14%) of these parents was parenting a non-biological step or foster child. Less than a quarter were married (22%), half (50%) were living with a partner, and 28% were sole parents (all female). The median net (after tax) total household income for these young parents was $585/week (range: $250–$2,450) and rates of welfare assistance were high (46%).
Measures—The parenting interview examined a range of issues relating to parenting practices and family circumstances. As part of this interview, parents completed for each child in their care, the physical assault subscale of the Parent-Child Conflict Tactics Scale (CTS-PC).15 This subscale consisted of 12 items assessing the extent to which parents had behaved in a physically punitive way towards each of their children in the last 12 months.
Items spanned corporal punishment (i.e. smacked on bottom with bare hand; hit on bottom with belt, hairbrush, stick, or other hard object) through to very severe forms of physical assault/abuse (i.e. hit child over and over as hard as could; choked, burned, or scalded on purpose). One item from the original CTS-PC was excluded because of the young age of most children: “threatened with a knife or gun.” All items were rated on a 7-point scale ranging from never (0) to more than 20 times (6). A parent was classified as having used a particular form of physical punishment if they reported having used it with any of their children. The CTS-PC represents one of the most widely used measures of parent-child aggression and has been shown to be reliable and valid.15,16.
To examine the factors that placed parents at increased risk of child physical punishment/abuse, a wide range of antecedent and concurrent measures were identified from the study database. These included measures of:
Detailed analyses revealed that only four of the many factors considered made significant net contributions to the prediction of parental physical punishment/abuse. These factors are described below.
Characteristics of younger parents—Compared to their non-parenting same-age peers, early parenting cohort members were significantly more likely to have been raised in families characterised by higher levels of socioeconomic disadvantage (41% vs 25%), teenage motherhood (48% vs 22%), maternal educational underachievement (70% vs 48%), and family instability (mean number of parental changes: 2.3±3.4 vs 0.9±2.0).
Young parents were also more likely to have left school without qualifications, to have adolescent externalising (26% vs 12%) and internalising difficulties (49% vs 32%), and as young adults, to identify themselves as Māori (22% vs 11%), have lower personal/family incomes, and higher levels of welfare dependence (46% vs15%).
These findings illustrate the highly selective processes associated with early parenthood as well as the challenging circumstances in which many young parents are raising their children, further raising concerns about their vulnerability to parenting difficulties, including child physical punishment/abuse.
Punitive parenting practices of younger parents—Table 1 shows the proportion of parents who reported using a range of punitive parenting behaviours when disciplining their children during the past 12 months, including minor physical assault/punishment as well as severe and very severe physical assault/abuse.
The use of physical punishment was high, with over three-quarters having physically punished a child in the last year by smacking, slapping, shaking, or hitting them on the bottom with an object. Severe forms of physical violence were less common, with one in nine parents (11.6%) reporting an act of severe physical punishment/assault (i.e. face slapping, hitting with fist or object on body other than bottom, kicking, throwing) and just under 3% reporting an act of extreme abuse (i.e. beating up, choking, burning).
Further examination of gender differences in the use of physical punishment/abuse revealed that mothers and father were highly similar in their levels of child physical punishment/abuse, with the exception of a small tendency for slightly more mothers to report using physical punishment than fathers during the last year (78% vs 62%, p=0.04).
Table 1. Parents’ reported use of different methods of child physical punishment in the last 12 months
Physical punishment by child age—Table 2 examines the extent to which the severity of parental physical punishment/abuse varied depending on the ages of children being parented. Results show that the use of physical punishment by parents was more common with children aged 2 years and over than with children aged under 2 years (p<0.0001). Nevertheless, even amongst parents with dependent children under 2, over a third (36.7%) reported an act of minor assault/physical punishment towards their child and 3.3% reported a severe assault (though none reported a very severe assault on a child under 2).
Table 2. Parents’ reported use of physical punishment by child age
Predictors of child physical punishment—To examine the parent, child, and family factors associated with the extent of parents’ use of physical punishment, a composite measure of physical punishment/abuse was created by first recoding the physical punishment items from the CTS-PC as absent/present and then summing them to form an overall scale score. This produced a score which ranged from 0 for parents who reported never using physical punishment to a maximum of 9 for one parent who reported using 9 of the 12 forms of physical punishment listed in Table 1 in the previous 12 months. This score was then related to a wide range of prospectively and concurrently assessed predictors (see Methods).
Multiple regression analysis identified four variables as making significant net contributions to the extent of parents’ use of physical punishment/abuse. These variables were: the socioeconomic status of their family of origin (β=0.17; p=0.02); parental overprotection in their own childhood (β=.19; p=0.01); the degree of concurrently reported socioeconomic and family functioning stress (β=0.19; p=0.01); and the total number of children in the family (β=0.27; p<0.0001).
Greater use of physical punishment/abuse was associated with having more children in the family, greater perceived family stresses and functioning difficulties, and having been raised in families characterised by lower socioeconomic status and overly restrictive and controlling parenting practices.
Conversely, those reporting the lowest rates of physical punishment/abuse were more likely to have only one child in the family, to report lower levels of stress and difficulty in family functioning, and to have been raised in higher socioeconomic status families characterised by less restrictive and less protective parenting practices.
Jointly, these four factors explained only 21% of the variance in physical punishment/abuse, suggesting a moderate level of prediction of the rate of physical abuse in this sample.
The right of New Zealand parents to smack and physically punish their children has recently attracted considerable public health and media attention. This study aimed to describe the prevalence of child physical punishment/abuse amongst a high risk group of young parents and to identify factors associated with an increased risk of severe child physical punishment/abuse. Study findings and their implications are discussed below.
There was clear evidence to support the high risk status of younger parents in terms of their preparedness for parenting. Compared to study members who had yet to become parents, those becoming parents by age 25 tended to have grown up in family circumstances characterised by socioeconomic disadvantage and parental instability, were less academically able, had gained fewer educational qualifications, and had higher rates of adolescent mental health problems.
As young adults, they were earning less and had higher levels of welfare assistance, depression, and anxiety disorders. These findings are consistent with previous studies describing the adverse psychosocial backgrounds and parenting circumstances of teenage and younger parents.19–21. They also highlight the vulnerability of younger parents to parenting difficulties.13
Examination of the reported punitive parenting practices of these young parents further confirmed these concerns. Physical punishment was common with over three-quarters of parents reporting the use of this method of discipline.
Of even greater concern were the high rates of severe (11.6%) and very severe physical assault (2.6%). These rates are higher than those based on earlier retrospective general population studies showing that the rate of severe assault was around 6%.9,10 However, they are highly consistent with rates of severe physical assault (11.7%) reported by high-risk parents not receiving early intervention support.22
Although risks of minor through to very severe child physical assault tended to increase with increasing age of the child, results showed that a substantial proportion of younger parents were physically punishing and severely assaulting infants and preschoolers. This is consistent with international studies showing that smacking is very common amongst parents of preschool children.23 Such findings warrant considerable concern given the over-representation of very young children in national child abuse statistics.
Finally, with the exception of a tendency for mothers to more frequently report the use of minor assault/physical punishment (likely due to differences in child care responsibilities), no gender differences were found in risks of severe or very severe physical punishment/abuse.
With respect to the antecedent and concurrent life course factors that placed younger parents at elevated risk of severe child physical punishment/abuse, surprisingly few strong predictors were identified. This may reflect the relatively homogenous nature of the study sample in terms of their social background, personal characteristics, and current life circumstances. This sample selection bias may also have reduced heterogeneity in parenting outcome.
Nonetheless, analyses did show that those parents most likely to use more severe forms of physical punishment were more likely to have come from lower socioeconomic status family backgrounds; to have been raised in families characterised by controlling, restrictive, and over protective childrearing methods; and who as young parents experienced higher levels of stress in relation to family functioning and socioeconomic circumstances. In addition, the use of physical punishment/abuse increased with the number of children being cared for within the family.
These findings suggest that an individual’s social background, childhood parenting experiences, as well as current levels of family stress and difficulty contribute to later effective parenting, particularly the use or avoidance of child physical punishment.
Of particular interest was the finding that having been raised in a family environment characterised by restrictive and controlling parenting appeared to be more predictive of later punitive parenting than an individual’s own history of physical punishment as a child. This suggests that the overall style of parenting to which a young person is exposed may be more important than specific parenting behaviours in predicting their later risks of child physical punishment/abuse. However, since other studies have demonstrated strong linkages between childhood exposure to physical punishment/abuse and later approval of physical punishment24 as well as risks of harsh parenting,12,25,26 further follow-up of this cohort at older ages with a larger and more representative sample will be important to clarify this issue.
The present study has a number of limitations. Firstly, the sample is a selected sample of young parents from relatively homogenous and disadvantaged backgrounds. This may have limited our ability to identify risk factors differentiating between parents at risk of more punitive parenting behaviour from those who were not.
Secondly, the sample was living predominantly (75%) in Christchurch. Thus, the extent to which these findings apply to other New Zealand samples and centres remains uncertain.
Finally, although the CTS-PC has a number of advantages including the use of specific behavioural criteria and the ability to assess infrequent and difficult to observe behaviour (e.g. kicking, choking), social desirability or the tendency for parents to minimise negative behaviours is a problem,27, as it is with virtually all self report measures of parenting. Thus, it is possible that the use of the CTS-PC may have resulted in an under-estimation of the extent of physical punishment and child abuse.
Nonetheless, within these limitations, study findings do suggest that the use of child physical punishment is likely to be common amongst young parents and that up to 12% of these parents may engage in harsh or abusive treatment of their children.
These findings have a number of important implications for current policy debates aimed at reducing levels of family violence in New Zealand. Firstly, it is clear that smacking is widely employed by younger parents to discipline their children, and that rates of severe assault are highly consistent with those reported amongst other high risk groups such as parents meeting psychosocial criteria for early intervention services. These findings lend support to recent policy initiatives to legislate against the use of physical punishment by parents. Whilst it is appreciated that not all parents who physically punish their children are at risk of child abuse, some compromise on the part of the many may be necessary to reduce risks for more vulnerable families.
Secondly, given the high prevalence of physical punishment and severe physical assault in this high risk sample, it is evident that efforts to regulate physical punishment and its associated risks will need to extend beyond legislation alone to an increased investment in parenting programmes aimed at reducing the fraction of children exposed to harsh or abusive treatment.
Mounting evidence exists to suggest that such programmes can be effective22,28–30 For example, recent findings from a randomised controlled trial of the Early Start Program showed that (by 36 months) families who received early intervention support had significantly lower rates of severe child physical assault (4.4% vs 11.7%); and higher mean levels of positive, non-punitive parenting; than untreated control families.22
Whilst legislating against the use of physical punishment may represent an important first step in the prevention of family violence, further research to evaluate existing and emerging parenting intervention strategies (to determine what works best and for whom) will be essential to fully address the problem of family violence in New Zealand.
Competing interests: None.
Author information: Lianne J Woodward, Associate Professor and Principal Researcher, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch; David M Fergusson, Professor and Executive Director, Christchurch Health and Development Study, Department of Psychological Medicine, Christchurch School of Medicine & Health Sciences, University of Otago, Christchurch; Anna Chesney, MSc student, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury, Christchurch; L John Horwood, Senior Research Fellow, Christchurch Health and Development Study, Department of Psychological Medicine, Christchurch School of Medicine & Health Sciences, University of Canterbury, Christchurch
Acknowledgements: This research was funded by grants from the University of Canterbury, Health Research Council of New Zealand, National Child Health Research Foundation, Canterbury Medical Research Foundation, and New Zealand Lottery Grants Board.
Correspondence: Lianne Woodward, Canterbury Child Development Research Group, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch, New Zealand Fax: (03) 364 2418; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
issue | Search journal |
Archived issues | Classifieds
| Hotline (free ads)
Subscribe | Contribute | Advertise | Contact Us | Copyright | Other Journals