UM-Flint social work professor publishes new research on parenting and punishment

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UM-Flint assistant professor of social work Julie Ma, PhD has published new research on parenting and child punishment.
UM-Flint assistant professor of social work Julie Ma, PhD has published new research on parenting and child punishment.

UM-Flint social work professor Julie Ma, PhD, recently published findings of new research on parenting and physical punishment in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect.

In this interview with University Relations she discusses how the research informs the free parenting class she has organized.

How did you decide to pursue this issue for your research?

My previous interactions with parents in a community-based parent education program in Ypsilanti, Michigan revealed that while most participants agreed on the harmful influences of physical punishment on children, they did not have adequate resources regarding effective use of alternative parenting strategies. Since then, I started to find ways to provide the necessary positive parenting skills and support and demonstrate effective ways of using alternatives to spanking.

What did your research entail?

I have published several studies in recent years that found that parental use of spanking is associated with negative child outcomes, such as higher levels of aggression, antisocial behavior, anxiety, and depression. When parents spank to discipline children, they unintentionally teach children that hitting is an acceptable way to correct others’ misbehavior. Also, spanking is likely to disrupt the secure emotional connection in the parent-child relationship that children need to thrive.

My most recent publication in Child Abuse and Neglect on this topic was a collaboration with U-M Ann Arbor School of Social Work faculty Andy Grogan-Kaylor and Shawna Lee. We demonstrated that parental spanking, even if it happened only once or twice in the past year, predicted higher levels of aggressive behavior in 3- to 5-year-old children. This finding is consistent with 50 years of research that showed spanking does more harm than good to children.

What findings do you find the most significant or surprising?

In this study, we used a rigorous statistical method that considers all characteristics of the parent, child, and family that do not change over time. For example, we statistically controlled for sensitive temperament and aggressive behavior of the child that elicit more frequent spanking. Our analysis also controlled for parent and family characteristics such as parental depression or poor anger management, family’s genetic heritage, race and ethnicity, and culture and tradition that may predict the use of spanking. By controlling these factors that may have potential associations with both child behavior and parental spanking, we find stronger evidence than most prior studies that spanking indeed leads to child aggression.

In what ways can you envision your research effecting public policy or parenting practices beyond the local area?

The United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) strongly advised to legally protect children from all forms of “cruel and degrading punishment” that involves spanking. Despite the global movement against corporal punishment, the U.S. remains the only United Nations member state that has not ratified the UNCRC. Consistent with the large body of research on the detrimental effects of spanking and recommendations from international organizations, professional organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics advise parents to use alternative methods of child discipline. Yet, more than half of young children in the U.S. are spanked by a parent in a given month and 70% of U.S. adults support spanking children.

I hope that this research will advocate for policies that support parent training programs that promote positive, non-violent child discipline, and shift public opinion in the U.S. about its appropriateness as a disciplinary strategy.

How does this research contribute to the parent education classes you are holding? What do these classes entail?

To bridge my research findings and practice, I am working on a research project that examines the effectiveness of a parent education class on positive, non-violent child discipline to parents in Genesee County. The upcoming parenting class will provide the necessary positive parenting skills and support using hands-on activities that involve materials on child development, goal setting, communicating with respect, research evidence on physical punishment, strategies that help in adopting new parenting skills, and teaching children positive behavior. We will be asking participants to fill out pre- and post-surveys.

From your perspective, how important is it to connect academic research with community outreach?

I believe the connection between academic research and community outreach is extremely important to have real-life impact. My interactions with parents have allowed me to understand the challenges of parenting that they face personally and in their families and communities more clearly, which I was able to incorporate in my research. Also, through community engaged projects, my research has been reaching a wider audience that involves parents, researchers, educators, practitioners, and clinicians.

Robert is a staff writer in the Office of University Relations. Contact him with comments, questions, and story ideas.