UM-Flint associate professor awarded NIH grant to research parental violence against children

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Julie Ma
Julie Ma, associate professor of social work, will examine the associations between physical abuse from parents and the social-emotional well-being and development of children in the context of gender inequality.

Whether its taking away privileges, grounding or spanking, there are probably as many opinions about how to discipline children as there are parents and kids across the country. But regardless of the means of punishment, the question remains: what are the consequences of this discipline for children as they grow up?

One person working diligently to provide answers is Julie Ma, a University of Michigan-Flint associate professor of social work, whose research has centered on parenting. Ma's efforts have recently been bolstered by a $466,637 grant for her work titled "Global Perspectives on Gender Inequality, Parental Violence, and Child Development."

The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development program.

Ma will examine the associations between physical abuse from parents and the social-emotional well-being and development of children in the context of gender inequality.

"The findings from this project will inform preventative interventions aimed at reducing gender disparities, parental physical violence, and improving child well-being in both local and global contexts," Ma said.

Ma's work of late has been examining a global sample of families from more than 60 countries, using comparable data, and strong statistical controls in response to a 2016 World Health Organization announcement that identified "protecting children from violence and adverse experiences that increase the risk of poor socioemotional development" as a global public health priority.

Ever since completing a bachelor's degree in humanities, Ma has been interested in children's outcomes. Her curiosity emerged as a child herself while growing up in Germany and South Korea. Living in two very different societies, Ma began to understand that where a child lives can shape how their parents interact with their children. She learned that while physical punishment was a common practice used by many parents around the world, it was particularly so in South Korea where she saw and experienced it. But while living in Germany, she learned that physical punishment was banned in some European countries. These life experiences led her to research how the environment shapes people's attitudes, beliefs and parenting practices.

In one of Ma's recent papers, she and co-investigators performed a Bayesian multilevel analysis on a hypothesis that kids who experience any type of violence at home, even as punishment, are more likely to become aggressive in their social interaction with friends, siblings or pets. The underlying idea is that early exposure reinforces violence as a norm for behavior correction. The researchers used data from more than 200,000 families and analyzed associations of physical punishment and nonphysical discipline (i.e., taking away privileges and verbal reasoning to discourage misbehavior) with three different measures of the children's socioemotional functioning: getting along well with other children, aggression, and becoming distracted.

Globally, Ma's research shows that parents who are more educated and earn higher incomes are less likely to use physical correction. The stress of surviving for many low-income families often impacts how parents conceive of their child's well-being and their capacity for parental patience. Therefore, parents who experience more stress often turn to violence and substance abuse. These negative environmental factors, which can include parents hitting children, have a very detrimental impact on social-emotional development. By contrast, children in high-income families have more social support and can offset the negative environmental factors, even the effects of physical punishment.

With the wide variations in cultures around the world, the research indicates that eliminating physical punishment would benefit children worldwide, findings that align with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Ma stated that more attention needs to be focused on nonphysical forms of discipline and for parents to set boundaries and use clear communication to let children know what behavioral expectations are.

Daba Coura Mbow is a communications intern in the Office of Research and Development. She can be reached at [email protected].