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Research conducted in America has shown that spanking children may foster their aggressive tendencies, but a recent investigation indicates that the cultural context of discipline is quite significant. In the current issue of Child Development, Jennifer E. Lansford from Duke University and a team of 14 co-authors report on the results of their study of physical discipline in six countries—Kenya, Italy, India, China, Philippines, and Thailand. They found that the amount of discipline administered by caregivers varied widely in the six societies, depending on the cultural values of each one.

Not surprisingly, in Thailand, where 95 percent of the population is Buddhist and, according to the article, the “social values are closely related to Buddhist teachings” (p.1237), physical discipline of children is minimal. At the opposite end of the spectrum, children are subject to the most spanking in Kenya, a country where physical punishment is most positively valued.

The article indicates that since the Thai Buddhists value compassion, warmth, and kindness, they seek to avoid friction in their interpersonal relationships. They rarely criticize, confront, or impose their will on others, and they socialize their children to defer to other people and to be peaceful. These Buddhist Thai values, they maintain, are reflected in the research results.

Since much of the literature on child discipline is based on American families, the 15 authors wanted to find out whether the effects of discipline on the adjustment of children vary in different cultural settings. In societies that easily accept physical discipline, they hypothesized, children should not be affected as much by spanking as children would be in cultures where it is not the norm.

They based their selection of countries on their desire to gain a broad perspective on beliefs and practices related to child discipline. They wanted to include cultures that ranged from individualistic to collectivist orientations, that had differing ideological and historical perspectives on punishment, that represented differing religious affiliations, and that had different legal approaches to child discipline. They were not surprised that the results showed that Thailand and Kenya were at opposite ends of the spectrum in their acceptance of physical punishment.

They selected 336 children from the six countries and interviewed them and their parents about the discipline measures that parents used. They questioned the parents to find out how often they used different types of discipline strategies. Children were asked, not about their own parents’ discipline patterns, but about the punishment strategies that parents in general use.

Parents and children were also given behavior assessments, measures that tried to determine what kinds of internalized and externalized behavior problems the children had developed. For instance, the children were asked, in the Youth Self-Report measure, to rate the truth of such as statements as “I worry a lot” or “I get into many fights.”

The results showed that the children who were disciplined were not as adversely affected in cultural situations where such discipline is normative as they were in situations where it is not acceptable. The more the society as a whole accepts the need for spanking, the less seriously it will affect the adjustment of the children. To turn that statement around, they concluded that in societies that strongly devalued punishment, such as Thailand, even the occasional use of physical discipline runs a high risk of fostering aggressive behavior and anxiety in children.

However, they also found that, in all countries, higher use of physical discipline, regardless of how normative it might be, was clearly associated with greater behavioral problems in children. Greater use of discipline resulted in children who were more anxious and more prone to being aggressive themselves.

Lansford et al. emphasize that conditions are not uniform in the countries they studied. In Thailand, behaviors and attitudes toward discipline vary. Thailand has recently had to enact child protection laws because of concerns about child abuse. The present study did not address possible variations within their target countries.

The lead researcher, Jennifer Lansford, made an interesting summary statement about the research to a reporter from the Reuters Health service. Lansford was quoted by Reuters as questioning, “whether physical discipline is appropriate in this day and age, regardless of how accepted it may be [in different cultural contexts].”

Lansford, Jennifer E. et al. 2005. “Physical Discipline and Children’s Adjustment: Cultural Normativeness as a Moderator.” Child Development 76(6): 1234-1246.