Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 44, Issue 3, pp 658–669 | Cite as

Spanking and Children’s Externalizing Behavior Across the First Decade of Life: Evidence for Transactional Processes

  • Michael J. MacKenzieEmail author
  • Eric Nicklas
  • Jeanne Brooks-Gunn
  • Jane Waldfogel
Empirical Research


Despite a growing literature associating physical discipline with later child aggression, spanking remains a typical experience for American children. The directionality of the associations between aggression and spanking and their continuity over time has received less attention. This study examined the transactional associations between spanking and externalizing behavior across the first decade of life, examining not only how spanking relates to externalizing behavior leading up to the important transition to adolescence, but whether higher levels of externalizing lead to more spanking over time as well. We use data from the Fragile families and child well-being (FFCW) study to examine maternal spanking and children’s behavior at ages 1, 3, 5, and 9 (N = 1,874; 48 % girls). The FFCW is a longitudinal birth cohort study of children born between 1998 and 2000 in 20 medium to large US cities. A little over a quarter of this sample was spanked at age 1, and about half at age 3, 5, and 9. Estimates from a cross-lagged path model provided evidence of developmental continuity in both spanking and externalizing behavior, but results also highlighted important reciprocal processes taking hold early, with spanking influencing later externalizing behavior, which, in turn, predicted subsequent spanking. These bidirectional effects held across race/ethnicity and child’s gender. The findings highlight the lasting effects of early spanking, both in influencing early child’s behavior, and in affecting subsequent child’s externalizing and parental spanking in a reciprocal manner. These amplifying transactional processes underscore the importance of early intervention before patterns may cascade across domains in the transition to adolescence.


Spanking Externalizing Aggression Transactional Cumulative risk 



This research was supported by grants from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Science Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Conflict of interest

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Author contributions

MJM conceived the study, completed the analysis and drafted the manuscript. EN participated in the design of the study, participated in the analysis and interpretation of the data, and edited the manuscript. JB-G participated in the design of the study and interpretation of results and helped to draft the manuscript. JW participated in the design of the study and the drafting of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • Michael J. MacKenzie
    • 1
    Email author
  • Eric Nicklas
    • 1
  • Jeanne Brooks-Gunn
    • 2
  • Jane Waldfogel
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Social WorkColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Teacher’s College and the College of Physicians and SurgeonsColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

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