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Conservative Protestantism and the Parental Use of Corporal Punishment

Author(s): Christopher G. Ellison, John P. Bartkowski, Michelle L. Segal

Source: Social Forces, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Mar., 1996), pp. 1003-1028
Published by: University of North Carolina Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2580390
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Social Forces.

ConservativreProtestantism and the Parental
Use of Corporal Punishment
CHRISTOPHERG. ELLISON,Universityof Texasat Austin
JOHN P. BARTKOWSK[,Universityof Texasat Austin
MICHELLEL. SEGAL,Universityof Texasat Austin


T7epresentstudydevelopsargumentslinkingConservative Protestant
conservativebeliefsabouttheBiblewith thefrequency withwhichphysicalpunishment
is usedto disciplinetoddlersandpreschoolers (ages1-4) andolderchildren(ages5-11)
andexplorestheseideasusingdatafrom the1987-88NationalSurveyof Familiesand
Households(NSFH). Multivariateresults generallyconfirm that parents with
conservativescripturalbeliefsuse corporal punishmentmorefrequentlythanparents
with less conservativetheologicalviews. Some modestnet effectsof Conservative
Protestant arealsoobserved.
affiliation Thestudyidentifiesseveralpromisingdirections
forfutureresearch on religiousvariationsin childdiscipline.

The use of corporalpunishmentto discipline childrenhas been the focus of

perennialpopularand academiccontroversy(see Larzelere1994;Straus1994a,
1994b).Although physicalpunishmentis stronglysupportedand widely used
by Americanparents (Straus& Gelles 1986;Wauchope& Straus1990),critics
claim that corporalpunishmenttrainschildrenin violence (1) by teachingthat
it is appropriatefor powerfulpersons to subordinateothersby using physical
force, (2) by teaching that feelings of frustrationand anger justify the use of
violence, and (3) by establishingan associationin a youngster'smind between
love and violence (Gray1988;Maurer1974;Straus1991).Consistentwith such
arguments,some researchindicatesthat childrensubjectedto corporalpunish-
ment tend to be more aggressive with peers and others than children who
experiencealternativeforms of discipline (Hotaling,Straus & Lincoln 1990;
Straus1991).Thereis also evidence that persons who are spanked or slapped
frequentlyin childhoodmay be more likely to use corporalpunishmentand to

* Portions of this study were presented at the 1994 meetings of the Association for the
Sociology of Religion, Los Angeles, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion,
Albuquerque.Theauthors thank Norval Glenn,GeorgeHolden,Paula Nesbitt, Daniel Powers,
and two anonymousreviewersfor helpfulcomments.Theauthors are solely responsibleforthe
analyses and interpretationspresentedhere.Direct correspondenceto ChristopherG. Ellison,
Departmentof Sociology, 336 BurdineHall, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712-

i) The University of North CarolinaPress Social Forces, March1996, 74(3):1003-1028

1004 / Social Forces 74:3,March1996

engage in harshparentingand domesticabuse as adults (Egeland,Jacobvitz&

Papatola1987;Simonset al. 1991;Simonset al. 1993).In addition,even mild to
young children (Taylor & Maurer 1985), and incidents that begin as mild
punishmentcan escalate into abusive encounters.Further,some researchers
have related harsh forms of physical punishmentto negative developmental
abuse, and others (Eckenrode,Laird& Doris 1993;Maccoby& Martin1983;
Wolfe 1987). Indeed, some studies suggest that the experience of corporal
punishment even inclines children toward criminal violence in adulthood
(Straus1991;Widom 1989).
Given these and other concerns,researchershave worked to identify the
social antecedentsof corporalpunishment.For instance,many have hypothe-
sized (1)thatworking-classparentssupportand use corporalpunishmentmore
thantheirmiddle-andupper-classcounterparts(e.g.,Bronfenbrenner 1958),and
(2) that AfricanAmericanparentssupportand use corporalpunishmentmore
than theirwhite counterparts(e.g.,Alvy 1987).To date,however,the empirical
evidence on both points remains decidedly mixed (Cazenave& Straus 1990;
Duvall & Booth1979;Erlanger1974).
Until recently, one important source of cultural support for corporal
punishmentreceivedshortshriftfromresearchers:religion.In an earlyexception
to this general patternof neglect, Erlanger(1974)analyzedretrospectivedata
collectedin the 1960s,and he noted thatBaptists(1) were more likely to report
that they had been spanked often as children,and (2) as adults, were more
likely to approveof spankingin generalthanotherrespondents.Althoughthese
religious differenceswere substantialin magnitude,they received only brief
discussionin thatstudy - whichwas devotedmainlyto socialclass differences
in corporal punishment - and they were largely ignored by subsequent
Since the publication of Erlanger's(1974) article, several studies have
renewed scholarlyfocus on religious variationsin attitudestoward corporal
punishment,with particularattentionto the distinctiveviews of Conservative
Protestants.1For instance,analyzing data on a nonrandomsample of church
members from portions of Kentuckyand Ohio, Wiehe (1990)reported that
individualsaffiliatedwith ConservativeProtestantchurchesare more likely to
view corporalpunishmentas an appropriateresponseto childmisbehaviorthan
are membersof more liberalreligious groups.AlthoughWiehe did not gauge
the theologicalbeliefs of his respondentsdirectly,he arguedthat the churches
that he classified as conservativealso tend to endorse literalistor inerrantist
views of the Bible,and he suggestedthatthesebeliefscontributeto pro-corporal
Followinga similarline of argument,Grasmickand colleagues (Grasmick,
Bursik & Kimpel 1991; Grasmick,Morgan & Kennedy 1992) used data on
samples of Oklahoma City adults to show that members of Conservative
Protestantdenominationsare especiallyinclinedto favorcorporalpunishment
in homes and schools. In one of these studies, Grasmick,Bursik,and Kimpel
(1991)examinedthe scripturalbeliefs of their respondentsdirectly,and they
concluded that high levels of ConservativeProtestantsupport for corporal
ConservativeProtestantismand CorporalPunishment/ 1005

punishmentare largely accountedfor by the tendencyof ConservativeProtes-

tants to embraceliteralistinterpretaiionsof the Bible.
Analyzing data from the 1988 GeneralSocialSurveys,Ellisonand Sherkat
(1993a)also reportedthat the membersof ConservativeProtestantdenomina-
tions supported corporal punishment more strongly than other Americans.
Moreover,they found that the relationshipbetween ConservativeProtestant
denominationalaffiliationand supportfor corporalpunishmentis mediatedby
threekey theologicaltenets:(1) the belief thatthe Bibleshould be interpretedas
the literalWordof God;(2) the beliefthathumannatureis fundamentallysinful
and corrupt;and (3) the belief that persons who violate God's rules must be
punished. In another study, Ellison and Sherkat (1993b)showed that this
complexof theologicalbeliefs also accountsfor the disproportionateConserva-
tive Protestantsupport for "authority-minded"parentalvalues - i.e., the
tendencyto emphasizeobediencein child rearing.
Although these recent investigationshave shed new light on a neglected
topic,theyfocus exclusivelyon attitudestowardcorporalpunishmentamongthe
generalpublic.Consequently,theyprovideno directevidencethatConservative
Protestantparentsthemselvesactuallyusephysicaldisciplinemore often than
other parents.Our study augmentsthe literaturein this areain several ways.
We begin by reviewing "insiderdocuments"on the topic - popular child-
rearingmanualsby conservativereligiouscommentators- to develop a series
of theoreticalarguments linking ConservativeProtestantismwith corporal
punishment.We then explorethese ideas using datafrom the 1987-88National
Surveyof Familiesand Households(hereafterNSFH).Ourwork centerson the
parents of toddlers and preschoolers(childrenaged 14), and the parents of
grade school-agedchildren(childrenaged 5-11).We considerthe influenceof
several sets of factors - ConservativeProtestantaffiliationand conservative
theology, parental and household characteristics,child characteristicsand
behaviors,and parentalchild-rearingvalues - on the frequencywith which
parentsuse corporalpunishmentto disciplinespecificchildren.In the conclud-
ing section of the article,we discuss several promising directionsfor future
researchon the links betweenConservativeProtestantismand child discipline.

Conservative ProtestantTheology and Child Discipline

Why might ConservativeProtestantparents use corporalpunishmentmore

frequently than other parents? Following the methodological counsel of
McNamara(1985),we turn to an understudiedset of insider documents,the
substantialbody of popular child-rearingmanuals producedand distributed
primarilywithin ConservativeProtestantcommunitiessince the late 1960s(for
details on this literature,see Bartkowski& Ellison1995).Best-sellingcontribu-
tors to this literatureinclude such conservativeluminariesas JamesDobson
(1970,1976, 1987),founder of the Focus on the Family organization,Beverly
LaHaye(1977),founderof ConcernedWomenfor America,noted conservative
Christian radio television evangelist Chuck Swindoll (1991), and Marlin
Maddoux(1992),presidentof the USA RadioNetwork,among many others.2
A carefulreview of these popularConservativeProtestantmanualsreveals
a clear and generallycoherenttheologicalrationaleunderlyingsupportfor the
1006 / Social Forces 74:3,March1996

corporal punishment of children (see Ellison & Bartkowski1996; Ellison &

Sherkat1993a).Conservativereligiousbeliefsaboutthe rightand responsibility
of parentsto discipline childrenwith physicalforce commonlybegin with the
view thatthe Bibleis the inerrantWordof God, the ultimatesourceof authority
and guidance regarding every aspect of human life, including child rearing
(Dobson 1970:197 and 1976:234-35;Fugate 1980:262-63;LaHaye 1977:145).
Religiousscriptureis widely regardedas purposivedivinecommunicationwith
humanity,and thereforeit is often presumedto containreliableand sufficient
information to guide the conduct of all human affairs. However, the implica-
tions of the doctrine of inerrancy for families, politics, and other human
endeavors are perennially contested among ConservativeProtestants (e.g.,
Barnhart 1993; Lindsell 1976). The theological and social meanings associated
with biblical inerrancy are debated, produced, and disseminated by way of
interpretive communities, or loose networks of theologians, pastors, and elite
laity who share fundamental assumptions about the text (see Boone 1989).
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is crucial for several reasons. First,
contemporary constructions of inerrancy typically emphasize the ubiquity and
divinely ordained nature of spiritual and worldly authority relations and
articulate the principle that Christians should submit themselves to the
leadership of duly constituted authorities in every area of life - church, family,
school, workplace, and government (Ammerman 1987; McNamara 1985; Rose
1988). However, perhaps nowhere is this "authority-mindedness" (Wald, Owen
& Hill 1989) clearer than in the popular literature on child rearing and family
life. According to Conservative Protestant authors, families are characterized by
specific patterns of authority relations (superordinate and subordinate roles) that
should always remain unchallenged (Bartkowski & Ellison 1995).
The primary responsibility of children is to obey parental directives; in turn,
parents are admonished to fulfill their obligations as authority figures rather
than abrogating their leadership role within the family (see Christenson 1970;
Fugate 1980). In support of these views, Conservative Protestant commentators
marshal an impressive array of scriptural passages in which children are
expectedto honor and obey parentalauthority(Exodus20:12;Ephesians6:1-2;
1 Timothy 3:4-5), under threat of divine judgment (Exodus 21:15-17; Deuter-
onomy 21:18-21; Proverbs 30:17).
In addition to this preoccupation with themes of hierarchy and authority
relations, contemporary constructions of biblical inerrancy draw heavily on Old
Testament passages to emphasize themes of human sin and punishment (see
Ellison & Sherkat 1993a, 1993b). Conservative Protestant commentators on child
rearing argue that all individuals are born sinful (Psalms 51:5, 58:3) - that is,
predisposed toward selfish conduct and inclined to reject authority in all forms
(Christenson 1970:95-98; LaHaye 1977:3; Maddoux 1992:19-20).3For instance,
Chuck Swindoll (1991) encourages parents to combat the "foolishness ... bound
up in the heart of a child" (Proverbs 22:15) with "diligent discipline" (Proverbs
"Foolishness" soundsrathermischievousandimpish... somewhatlightheartedandfun-
loving.Butthe Hebrewssaw it as far moreserious."Thefool has said in his heart'There
is no God"' (Psalm 14:1). The "foolish"possess a God-mocking,instruction-hating
nature.Fools, therefore,despise discipline.Foolishnesshas a disrespectfor authority.
Conservative Protestantism and Corporal Punishment / 1007

Determinedto go its own way, it resistsall reproof.And remember,all this 'is boundup
in the heartof a child"- yourchild (88, emphasisin original).

Beverly LaHaye (1977) sounds an even shriller alarm:

[God]gave each of us a freewill to chooseevil or good, and the child that is not trained
to choosegood will undoubtedlychooseevl.... It is of greatbenefitto the parentwhen
he realizesthat it is naturalfor his child to have a desirefor evil. The child is not just
beingobstinateand uncooperativebut is followingthatnaturaldesireto learnmoreabout
and to experienceevil (3, emphasisin original).

According to Conservative Protestant parenting specialists, "willful

defiance" is virtually inevitable among children, particularly toddlers, and such
defiance carries dangerous long-term consequences if unchecked. They believe
that without appropriate discipline, children will grow up lacking respect for
parents and other authority figures, nurturing rebellious tendencies that will
make them unfit citizens, unproductive workers, and unhappy spouses and
parents (Christenson 1970:88-90; Dobson 1970:14; Fugate 1980:14-15; LaHaye
Although Conservative Protestant child-rearing specialists extol the value of
stem discipline - and particularly corporal punishment - on instrumental or
pragmatic grounds, for securing behavioral conformity and training children for
adulthood, most also believe that this form of punishment conveys an important
religious lesson to youngsters about the nature of God. In brief, they argue that
parents symbolize God's authority to children, and that many children come to
conceptualize or envision God, and to understand their relationship to God,
through parental imagery (e.g., LaHaye 1977:69;Swindoll 1991:95).Consequent-
ly, these commentators conclude that while parents must teach their children by
example that God is kind and loving, it is equally important to communicate by
example the swift and uncompromising nature of divine punishment (Christen-
son 1970:99-100;Dobson 1976:171-72;Fugate 1980:4142).
A crucial part of the Conservative Protestant rationale for firm child
discipline involves the imperative of conversion (Ellison & Sherkat 1993a;
Greven 1977). If the sinful tendencies of youngsters go unchecked, their very
souls are believed to be in jeopardy. Many Conservative Protestants fear that if
children have not been trained to submit to worldly authority figures, they will
also be unable or unwilling to submit themselves to God's supreme authority
and guidance, a key requisite of salvation (Daugherty 1991:72;Fugate 1980:190;
LaHaye 1977:132).These eternal implications of child discipline are underscored
vividly by Dobson (1976:172-73):
If a littlechild is taughtto disrespectthe authorityof his parents,systematicallyfromthe
tenderyears of childhood- to mocktheirleadership,to "sass"them and disobeytheir
instructions,to exerciseextremeself-willfromthe earliestmomentsof awareness- then
it is most unlikelythat this same child will turn his face up to God, abouttwenty years
later,and say humbly,"HereI am, Lord;send me!"To repeat,a childlearnstoyieldto the
authorityof Godbyfirstlearningtosubmit(ratherthanbargain)to theleadership ofhisparents.

Given such distinctive and strongly held views on sin and its consequences,
religious conservatives stress the urgent need for parents to begin "shaping the
1008 / Social Forces 74:3,March1996

wills" of their children at an early age. Virtuallyall ConservativeProtestant

writers agree that Christianparents are morally obligated to use physical
"chastisement"with the "rod' becausethis is the primarybiblicallyordained
response to overt challenges to parental authority (Daugherty1991:67-68;
LaHaye 1977:14547;Lessin 1979:24;Swindoll 1991:85-88).In support of this
claim, they refer to numerous scriptural passages that they interpret as
encouragingthe use of physical force to shape the will of children(2 Samuel
7:14;Proverbs23:13-14,29:15;Hebrews 12:6-8;see Greven 1990:52-55for an
alternativereadingof these passages).
Althoughthereis broadconsensusamong ConservativeProtestantparent-
ing writersthatcorporalpunishmentis a necessaryand importantpartof child
rearing,it bears mentioningthat there is less agreementon other issues. For
instance,a few writerscountenancethe expansiveuse of corporalpunishment
for virtuallyany offense,reasoningthatmost disciplinaryinfractionsultimately
constitutedisobedienceof one sort or another(e.g., Fabrizio1969),and some
decline to rule out the use of physical punishmentto discipline children of
almost any age, including adolescents(e.g., Fugate1980).However, the most
prominentconservativereligious writers (Dobson1976, 1987;Swindoll 1991)
advocatecorporalpunishmentprimarilyif not exclusivelyto confrontwillful
defiance, mainly by toddiers. Dobson (1976, 1987) also suggests that the
frequencyof physicalpunishmentsshould diminishas childrengrow olderand
develop appropriateinternalbehavioralcontrols,and he explicitlydiscourages
parentsfrom spankingor slapping adolescents.
ManyConservativeProtestantwritersalso endorsenonphysicaldisciplinary
strategies,including positive reinforcement,to build a child's self-esteemand
maximizecompliance(Dobson1976:78;LaHaye1977:141-42; Swindoll1991:104-
5), naturalor logical consequencesas punishmentfor childish irresponsibility
(e.g., Dobson 1976:32),and other techniques.
The foregoing review of popular ConservativeProtestantchild-rearing
the physical punishment of children. First, because conservative church
communities are likely to encourage and support the use of "traditional'
parentingpracticesby theirmembers,we expectthatmembersof Conservative
Protestantdenominationswill use corporalpunishmentmore often than other
Americanparents.Second, given the argumentsdeveloped above, we expect
that theologicalconservatism- especiallybelief that the Bibleis inerrantand
should guide all human affairs - will be positively associated with the
frequency of corporal punishment and that the estimated net effects of
denominationalaffiliationwill be mediatedvia theologicalconservatism.
Third, given the concern over human sinfulness among many religious
conservatives,it is possible that the links between ConservativeProtestantism
and physical punishmentwill be partly mediatedvia parents'assessmentsof
child behavioralpatterns.Fourth,in light of the focus on intergenerational
hierarchyin conservativereligious child-rearingmanuals,we expect that the
links between indicatorsof ConservativeProtestantism(both affiliationand
theologicalconservatism)and corporalpunishmentwill be partlymediatedvia
parental values that emphasize children's obedience.The remainderof this
articledesigns and executesan empiricaltest of these hypotheses.
ConservativeProtestantismand CorporalPunishment/ 1009

Data and Measures


To explore the relationships between ConservativeProtestantismand the

parentaluse of corporalpunishmentto discipline toddlers and preschoolers
(ages14) and gradeschool-agedchildren(ages5-11),we analyzedatafromthe
NSFH.Directedby sociologistsat the Universityof Wisconsin-Madisonduring
1987-88(for details, see Sweet, Bumpass & Call 1988), the NSFH is a cross-
sectionalnationalprobabilitysample of 13,017men and women 19 years old
and over. This includes oversamplesof blacks, Puerto Ricans and Mexican
Americans,single-parentfamilies,familieswith stepchildren,cohabitingcouples,
and recentlymarriedpersons.
TheNSEHdataare ideal for the purposesat hand,and superiorto the data
used in most prior studies, for several reasons. First, findings from a large
nationalprobabilitysample are more reliableand generalizablethan findings
from smaller communitysamples or from conveniencesamples. Second, the
NSEHdata set includes informationon the ConservativeProtestantdenomina-
tional ties and scripturalbeliefs of primaryparentalrespondents,along with
extensiveinformationon otherparentalandhouseholdcharacteristics. Third,the
NSFHinstrumentincludes a series of questionsaboutfocal childrenwho were
selected at randomfrom the roster of household members.By using data on
these focal children, we are able to investigate the frequency with which
corporalpunishmentis used to discipline particularyoungsters.Further,the
NSFH permits us to consider weeklyfrequenciesratherthan the less precise
annualor lifetimemeasuresthat are sometimesused in researchon this topic.
Moreover,we arealso ableto considerthe effectsof variouschild character-
istics and behaviorson the frequencyof corporalpunishment.Ouranalysesare
restrictedto the primaryrespondingparentsof focal toddlersand preschoolers
and focalgradeschool-agedchildren.Theseanalysesarepresentedsequentially.
Dataareweighted to accountfor the differentialprobabilityof selectionin both
the sample and the household,as well as biases in responserates.

The parentsof focal childrenwere asked the following questions:"Sometimes

children behave well and sometimes they don't. Have you had to spank
[FOCALCHILD]when [he/she] behavedbadly in the past week?"Thosewho
responded affirmativelywere then asked "Abouthow many times have you
had to spank [FOCALCHILD]in the past week?"Consistentwith the findings
of previous research(e.g., Wauchope& Straus1990),corporalpunishmentis
employedmorefrequentlyon toddlersand preschoolersthanon olderchildren.
Roughly52%of the parentsof focal childrenaged 14 reportedusing corporal
punishmentduring the week prior to the interview,with 20%spankingtheir
child once. To reduce skewness, we truncatethis variableso that the highest
response categoryis "six or more"spankingsper week; approximately6%of
the parentalrespondentsreportedusing corporalpunishmentthis frequently.In
the analyses that follow, we use ordinary least squares (OLS) regression
1010 / Social Forces 74:3,March1996

techniquesto estimate the effects of religious variablesand covariateson this

outcome measure.
Among the parentsof gradeschool-agedchildren,some 23%of the parents
reported using corporal punishment during the week prior to the NSFH
interview. Most of these parents (18%of the total) spanked once. Given the
radicallyskewed distributionof these responses,we constructa dichotomous
variableto distinguishthose parentswho used corporalpunishmentfromthose
who did not. Becausethe limitationsof OLSregressiontechniquesfor modeling
dichotomousoutcomesarewell known,we use logisticregression,in which the
dependentvariableis the naturallog of the odds of a given responsecategory
(e.g., spankingversus not spanking)(Aldrich& Nelson 1984).

A dummy variable is used to identify persons affiliated with Conservative

Protestantchurches,includingthe followinggroups:SouthernBaptist,Indepen-
dent Baptist,other fundamentalistBaptist(Primitive,FoursquareGospel, etc.),
Church of Christ, Church of God, Independent or Open Bible churches,
Adventist, Alliance Church, Church of God in Christ, Assemblies of God,
Pentecostal, Holiness, Apostolic, and other fundamentalistor evangelical

To measurethe types of beliefsregardingreligiousscripturethatwere discussed
earlier,we use a two-itemindex (r = .73,p < .001,Cronbach'salpha=.85)based
on respondents'agreementwith the following statements:(1) "The Bible is
God's word and everything happened or will happen exactly as it says."
(2) "TheBible is the answer to all importanthuman problems."Responsesto
each item range from (1) "stronglydisagree"to (5) "stronglyagree,"and the
mean score is used as our indicatorof theological

Ouranalysesincludeseveralvariablestappingparentalreportsof the frequency
with which the focal child exhibitedvarious types of behaviors,moods, and
demeanors during the three months prior to the NSFH interview. Primary
responding parents of focal children aged 14 were read a list of ten such
behaviors, including (1) "Is fussy or irritable";(2) "Losestempereasily"; (3)
"Bullies,or is cruel or mean to others";and (4) Obeysor "does what you ask."
For each statement,response categorieswere (1) "not true," (2) "sometimes
true,"and (3) "oftentrue."6Primaryrespondingparentsof older childrenwere
read a similarlist of behaviors(with identicalresponsecategories),except that
"fussy or irritable"was not included on theirlist. In preliminaryanalyses,we
explored the associationbetween the other child behaviorson these lists (e.g.,
"feels sad or depressed," "feels fearful or anxious," "gets along well with
others," "tries new things") and the frequency with which children are
ConservativeProtestantismand CorporalPunishment/ 1011

subjectedto corporalpunishment.We detectedno relationshipsbetweenthese

additionalchild behaviorsand the frequencyof corporalpunishment.

Authority-Minded ParentalValues
To gauge parents'valuationof obedienceby theirchildren,we used a two-item
index.As partof a largerbatteryof traits,parentswere askedhow importantit
is for theirchildrento "alwaysfollow familyrules"and to "alwaysdo what you
ask."Responsecategoriesrangefrom (1)"notat all important"to (7)"extremely
important."We note that these parentalvalues items differ somewhat from
those used in many previous studies (Alwin 1984;Ellison& Sherkat1993b),in
which respondents were asked to rank the importanceof a series of child
characteristics.The two items identified above are combined into an index
(r=.55, p <.001, Cronbach'sa -.71), and the mean score is our indicator of
authority-minded parentalvalues.

Respondent andHouseholdCharacteristics
We can have confidencein our findingson the relationshipsbetweenConserva-
tive Protestantismand the use of corporalpunishmentby primaryparental
respondents only when we have controlled for the potentially confounding
effects of a range of sociodemographicand backgroundfactors,including the
following: age of respondent (in years); gender of respondent (1 =female);
race/ethnicityof parent(1 = black,1 = Hispanic,0 = white/Anglo); total household
income(in tens of thousands of 1986 dollars, logged); parent's education(in
years);number of childrenyoungerthan5 in the household (besides the focal
preschooler);numberof childrenaged5 andolderin the household (besidesthe
focal child); and the primary parentalrespondent'smarital status (1 =single

In addition, we also include dummy variables to identify the child's sex
(1 =femalechild), as well as to indicate whether the focal child is a stepchild
(1 = stepchild)or an adopted child (1 = adopted).In the analysesof focal toddlers
and preschoolers,we use dummyvariablesto identifythe child's age (1 = age4,
1 = age 3, 1 = age 1, 0 = age 2), because preliminaryanalyses indicated that the
estimatedeffectsof age on the frequencyof corporalpunishmentis curvilinear
for childrenof this age group.We also investigatedthe associationbetweenage
and corporalpunishmentfor older childrenand found the relationshipto be
generallylinear.Thereforewe include a linearageeffectin the models for grade
school-agedchildren.Means and standarddeviationsof the variablesused in
the final analyses are displayed in Table1.

As a rule, valid sample means are substituted for missing values on most
predictorvariablesin order to maximize the effective sample size. Ancillary
analysesshow thatthis meansubstitutionproceduredoes not significantlyalter
our results. Because a relatively large proportion of NSFH respondents
1012 / Social Forces 74:3, March 1996

TABLE1: Descriptive Statistics on All Variablese

Children Children
Aged 14 Aged 5-11
Frequencyof corporalpunishment 1.22
(continuous) (1.67)
Use of corporalpunishment .23
(dichotomous) (.42)

ConservativeProtestantaffiliation .25 .27
(43) (.44)
Theologicalconservatism 3.36 3.41
(1.08) (1.10)
Respondentand householdcharacteristics
Female .60 .55
(.49) (.50)
Age 30.10 34.96
(6.75) (6.71)
Black .11 .14
(.32) (.35)
Hispanic .10 .11
(.30) (.31)
Single parent .18 .18
(.39) (.38)
Education 13.23 12.97
(2.79) (2.79)
Household income Oogged) .90 1.02
(1.38) (1.22)
Childrenyounger than 5 .40 .29
(.57) (.54)
Children aged 5-18 .49 .88
(.81) (.93)

(approximately 16%) were missing valid information on household income, a

dummy variable was included in preliminary models to identify respondents
who were initially missing income data. When this variable was consistently
unrelated to the frequency of corporal punishment of children of either age
group, it was dropped from subsequent models.
ConservativeProtestantismand CotporalPunishment/ 1013

TABLE1: DescriptiveStatisticson All Variablesa(Continued)

Children Children
Aged 14 Aged 5-11
Female .46 .51
(.50) (.50)
Age 2.47 7.81
(1.09) (1.95)
Stepchild .01 .04
(.10) (.21)
Adopted .01 .03
(.12) (.18)
Obeys 2.31 2.48
(.54) (.53)
Losestemper 1.99 1.86
(.70) (.72)
Bulliesothers 1.36 1.32
(.57) (.55)
Fussy 1.98
Authority-minded 5.64 5.91
(1.04) (.89)
N 1,393 1,829

a Meandescriptive deviationsarein parentheses.



Table2 presentsthe resultsof a series of OLSregressionmodels estimatingthe

net effectsof ConservativeProtestantdenominationaltiesandconservativeBible
beliefs on the frequencywith which parentalrespondentsphysically punish
focal children14 years old. The models are organizedin hierarchicalfashion;
they are designed to take into account (1) the possible confoundingeffects of
various sociodemographicand household backgroundfactors and (2) the
possiblemediatingeffectsof focalchildcharacteristicsandparentalchild-rearing
values.Model1 includesConservativeProtestantreligiousaffiliation,alongwith
controlsfor sociodemographiccharacteristicsof the household,focal child, and
1014 / Social Forces 74:3,March1996

TABLE2: EstimatedNet Effectsof ConservativeProtestantismand Covariateson

Frequencyof CorporalPunishment of ChildrenAged 14I

(1) (2) (3) (4)


ConservativeProtestant .229* .043 .023 -.001

affiliation (.059) (.011) (.006) (-.001)

Theological conservatism - .229*** .245*** .221

(.148) (.158) (.142)
Respondentand household
Female .381*** .375** .381*** .406*
(.112) (.110) (.112) (.120)
Age -.048*** -.046*** -.032*** -.031*
(-.194) (-.187) (-.129) (-.125)
Black -.019 -.065 .080 .050
(-.004) (-.012) (.015) (.010)
Hispanic -.482** -.577*** -.398** -.426*
(-.087) (-.104) (-.072) (-.077)
Single parent -.148 -.138 -.162 -.149
(-.034) (-.032) (-.037) (-.034)
Education -.031t -.014 -.013 -.008
(-.051) (-.024) (-.022) (-.013)
Household income -.040 -.044 -.041 -.045
(logged) (-.034) (-.036) (-.034) (-.037)
Children younger .250** .226** .162* .154*
than 5 (.086) (.078) (.056) (.053)
Children aged 5-18 .058 .038 .006 -.003
(.028) (.018) (.003) (-.001)

primary parental respondent. Theological conservatism is added in model 2. In

model 3, indicators of positive and negative child behaviors are added, and
authority-minded child-rearing values are included in the final model (model 4).
Several findings are especially important. In model 1, Conservative Protes-
tant denominational affiliation emerges as a weak (v <.06) positive predictor of
the frequency of corporal punishment, even net of the potentially confounding
effects of various household, respondent, and child characteristics. As expected,
this estimated net effect is completely attenuated with the inclusion of theologi-
cal conservatism in model 2. It is noteworthy (1) that the estimated net effect of
theological conservatism is greater than that'of Conservative Protestantism, and
(2) that the addition of theological conservatism significantly enhances the
predictive power of the model. These empirical patterns indicate that while
Conservative Protestantism and Corporal Punishment / 1015

TABLE2: EstimatedNet Effectsof ConservativeProtestantismand Covariateson

Frequency of CorporalPunishment of ChildrenAges 14e

(1) (2) (3) (4)

Female -.345*** -.330*** -.262** -.258*
(-.103) (-.099) (-.078) (-.077)
Age 1 -.418*** -.432*** -.329** -.325*
(-.106) (-.109) (-.083) (-.082)
Age 3 -.237* -.254* -.224* -.231*
(-.060) (-.065) (-.057) (-.059)
Age 4 -.538*** -.539*** -.483*** -.493*
(-.137) (-.137) (-.123) (-.125)
Stepchild .043 .040 .065 .009
(.002) (.002) (.004) (.001)
Adopted child .569 .508 .391 .417
(.040) (.036) (.028) (.030)

Obeys - .266*** -.275*
(-.086) (-.089)
Loses temper .314*** .317***
(.133) (.134)
Bullies others - .327*** .341***
(.111) (.116)
Fussy .279*** .278**
(.097) (.097)

parentalvalues - - .133*

Intercept 3.197 2.244 .669 -.092

Adjusted R2 .101 .117 .187 .193


OLSregressionestimates,metriccoefficients.Standardizedbetas are in parentheses.

itp<.10 *p<.05 **p<.ol ***p<.00l

1016 / Social Forces 74:3, March 1996

members of Conservative Protestant groups embrace disproportionately

conservativeviews aboutthe Bibleand relatedissues, thesebeliefsare also held
to a lesser degree by membersof otherreligious communities.
Theologicalconservatismremainsa significantpredictorin models 3 and 4
with minimalchangein the size of the parameterestimate,despitethe addition
of statisticalcontrolsfor childbehaviorsandparentalchild-rearingvalues.Thus,
it appears that despite their sensitivity to issues of sin and punishment,
ConservativeProtestantparents are no more likely than other parents to
evaluatethe behaviorof theirchildrenin globallynegativeterms - as disobedi-
ent, temperamental,and so forth. Further, although parents' theological
conservatismis positively associated with valuation of obedience and self-
controlin children(r= .34,p <.001), the additionof controlsfor such authority-
mindedparentalvalues reducesthe estimatednet effectof theologicalconserva-
tism only slightly.8
As is frequentlythe case with survey research,the size of the parameter
estimates for religious variables is not overwhelming, and their unique
contributionto the overallexplanatorypower of the models appearsrelatively
modest,approximately2-3%.However,given the widespreadconcernaboutthe
social antecedentsand consequencesof corporalpunishmentamong academic
andpopularexperts,ourresultsmayhave importantimplications.Accordingto
the estimatedfull model (model4), each incrementin the theologicalconserva-
tism index of the respondentis associatedwith an increaseof .221 in weekly
spankingsadministeredto the focal child aged 14. On average,then, a parent
with the maximumscore of 5 on the theologicalconservatismindex - that is,
one who strongly agrees that the Bible is inerrantand containsanswersto all
humanproblems- spanksor slaps his or her toddleror preschooler.884more
times per week on average than a theologicallyliberalparentwho receivesa
score of 1 and strongly disagreeswith these scripturalviews. To be sure, it is
importantnot to reify these parameterestimates.Nevertheless,assuming a
generally constant average rate of physical punishment by parents, these
estimatestranslateinto a differenceof nearly 50 episodes (.221x [5-1]x 52 -
45.698)of physical force over the course of a 12-month(52-week)period.9
In addition to examiningthe main effects of religious variables,we also
included various cross-product(interaction)terms in model 4 of Table 2 to
investigate several contingent relationships.For instance, we examined the
possibility that the estimated net effect of theological conservatismon the
frequencyof corporalpunishmentis strongerfor blacksand Hispanicsthanfor
whites/Anglos, for fathers(becausemany ConservativeProtestanthouseholds
are organizedin patriarchalfashion),and for parentswith less educationand
income. In addition, we tested for variations in the effect of theological
conservatismby the age and gender of the young child.
We also considered two additional possibilities: (1) It is reasonableto
anticipatethat, while many parents of various religious backgroundsvalue
obedience in their children, the connectionbetween such authority-minded
values and the frequencyof corporalpunishmentis strongerfor theological
conservatives.(2)Althoughmanyparentsbf all theologicalstripesmay respond
to repeatedchild misbehaviorwith corporalpunishment,it is conceivablethat
certain types of persistentmisbehavior(e.g., disobedience,cruelty to others)
ConservativeProtestantismand CorporalPunishment/ 1017

may be especially likely to elicit physical punishment from theologically

conservativeparents.Ancillaryanalyses (not shown) yielded no clear support
for any of these contingenthypotheses.

Table 3 presents logistic regression models estimating the net effects of

ConservativeProtestantismand covariateson the log odds of corporalpunish-
ment by the parentsof children5-11 years old. Thesemodels are organizedin
hierarchicalfashion, similar to those presented in Table 2. Again, several
patternswarrantattention.Model 1 indicatesthat membershipin a Conserva-
tive Protestantdenominationis associatedwith an increaseof nearly50%in the
odds thatrespondingparentsspankedor slappedtheirgradeschool-agedchild
duringthe week priorto the NSFHinterview,net of the confoundingeffectsof
respondent,household, and child characteristics.The inclusion of theological
conservatismin model 2 reduces this associationbut does not attenuateit
entirely.As in Table2, theologicalconservatismremainsa significantpredictor
of corporalpunishmentin models 3 and 4. In fact,these models reveala slight
suppressorpattem;the estimatednet effectof theologicalconservatismactually
increasessomewhatonce parentalassessmentsof childbehaviorsare takeninto
account.In the full model (model4), eachincrementin the theologicalconserva-
tism index is associatedwith an increaseof nearly20%in the odds of spanking
or slapping a grade school-agedchild.
Thus, accordingto these estimates,the log odds of using corporalpunish-
ment in a given week are nearly 75%(.185x [5-1]= .740)higher for a parent
with the maximumscore of 5 on this index - i.e., a strongtheologicalconser-
vative - than for a parent of similar backgroundcharacteristicswith the
minimumscore of 1 on the index - i.e., a strong theologicalliberal.
Parentalaffiliationwith a ConservativeProtestantdenominationalso bears
a weak (and marginally significant)but positive associationwith corporal
punishmentthroughoutthis panel of models.In the full model, the log odds of
using corporalpunishmentare roughly 33%(exp [.284])greaterfor a parent
who reportsaffiliationwith a ConservativeProtestantgroup than for a parent
with similar backgroundcharacteristicswho is not affiliated with such a
denomination(v < .08).As in the analysesof the parentsof focal toddlersand
preschoolers, tests designed to identify various interactive or contingent
relationshipswith the ConservativeProtestantvariablesturnedup no reliable
evidence of such patterns.

Althoughthe estimatedeffectsof the covariatesthemselvesare not the primary

focus of our study, the NSFH data yield a numberof useful insights into the
antecedentsof corporalpunishment.Giventhe dearthof evidenceon this topic,
several empirical patterns involving covariates also merit brief discussion.
Mothersof very young childrenand grade school-agedchildrenuse corporal
punishmentmore frequentlythanfathers.Youngerparentsspankor slap their
children more often than older parents,although the estimatednet effect of
1018 / Social Forces 74:3, March 1996

TABLE3: Estimated Net Effects of Conservative Protestantism and

Covariates on Log Odds of Corporal Punishment of Children
Aged 5_11a

(1) (2) (3) (4)

affiliation .402** .296* .288t .284t
(1.495) (1.344) (1.334) (1.328)
Theological - .141* .200* .185*
conservatism (1.151) (1.221) (1.203)

Respondentand household
Female .656* .623* .668"* .685m
(1.927) (1.865) (1.951) (1.984)
Age -.022* -.021* -.011 -.011
(.978) (.979) (.989) (.989)
Black .060 .032 .310 .273
(1.062) (1.033) (1.363) (1.313)
Hispanic -.044 -.076 .198 .170
(.957) (.927) (1.219) (1.186)
Single parent .064 .114 -.002 .005
(1.066) (1.120) (.998) (1.005)
Education -.054* -.048t -.037 -.032
(.947) (.953) (.964) (.969)
Household income -.030 -.023 -.026 -.025
(logged) (.970) (.977) (.975) (.976)
Children younger .417m .413*** .461m .465*
than 5 (1.517) (1.511) (1.585) (1.592)
Children ages 5-18 .009 -.001 -.036 -.040
(1.009) (.999) (.965) (.961)

Female -.591** -.597* -.544 -.533***
(.554) (.551) (.580) (.587)
Age -.262* -.266* -.308* -.305**
(.770) (.767) (.735) (.737)
Stepchild -.069 -.054 -.135 -.128
(.933) (.948) (.874) (.880)
Adopted child .424** .400* .421* .413*
(1.528) (1.492) (1.524) (1.511)
Conservative Protestantism and Corporal Punishment / 1019

TABLE3: Estimated Net Effects of Conservative Protestantism and Covariates

on Log Odds of Corporal Punishment of Children Aged 5-11'

(1) (2) (3) (4)

Obeys -.845*** -.867*
(.430) (.420)
Loses temper .585** .586**
(1.795) (1.797)
Bulies others .371** .379***
(1.450) (1.461)
Authority-minded .132t
parental values (1.141)

Intercept 1.825 1.298 1.229 .412

Model X2 204.74 210.05 353.14 356.17
Degrees of freedom 14 15 18 19

Dependent variable
mean .228 .228 .228 .228
Pseudo R2 .100 .103 .162 .163


a Logisticregressioncoefficients.Exponentiatedcoefficientsare in parentheses.

t p <10 p <.05 p <.01 p <.001

parent's age is attenuated in the models for grade school-aged children by

controls for parents' assessments of child behavior. Parents with multiple
toddlers and preschoolers also physically punish their children - including
their older children - more frequently than other respondents. Taken together,
these patterns are broadly consistent with the notion that parents who are
inexperienced and stressed tend to spank or slap their children more often than
Given the substantial body of prior work associating socioeconomic
differences in child rearing with attitudes toward corporal punishment men-
tioned at the outset of this study, it is interesting that household income and
parental education are only relatively weak predictors of the use of corporal
punishment, for younger and for older children.10While observers have long
suggested that African Americans resort to corporal punishment more frequent-
ly than whites/Anglos (e.g., Alvy 1987), we find no substantial black-white
1020 / Social Forces 74:3, March 1996

differencesin the spankingof eithertoddlersor preadolescentsonce the effects

of relevantsociodemographicand otherbackgroundfactorsare held constant.
Further,althoughwe find no differencesin the corporalpunishmentof grade
school-agedchildrenbetweenHispanicsand whites/Anglos, Hispanicparents
reportspankingor slappingtheirtoddlersandpreschoolersless frequentlythan
white/Anglo parents.
Consistentwith previousresearch(e.g.,Wauchope& Straus1990),we find
that child characteristicsand parentalassessmentsof child behavioralso have
important implications for child discipline. In the NSFH, parents' use of
physicalforce peaks aroundage 2, declinesslightly at age 3, and then tails off
considerablyby age 4. Corporalpunishmentseems to plateauaroundages 5-6,
when the child is entering the school-age period, and then declines mono-
tonically thereafter.Thereis also a substantialgender differencein the use of
corporalpunishment:Boys of all ages arespankedor slappedmuchmoreoften
than girls. Further,adoptedgradeschool-agedfocal childrenconfrontelevated
risks of physical punishment;they are more than 50%more likely (exp [.413])
than other childrento have been spankedor slapped by parentalrespondents
during the week prior to the interview.
It is not surprisingthatrespondentswho evaluatetheirchildrenas obedient
use corporalpunishmentinfrequently,while respondentswho indicatedthat
theiryoung childrenengagein undesirablebehaviors- i.e., thatthey arefussy
or temperamental,or that they bully others - tend to employ physical force
much more often. Given the cross-sectionalnatureof the NSFH data and the
fact that child behaviorsare measuredfrom parentalassessmentsratherthan
from observation,the causalprocessthatunderliestheseempiricalassociations
remains unclear. It is somewhat surprising that authority-mindedparental
values (i.e.,valuationof children'sobedienceandconformity)areonly modestly
associatedwith the corporalpunishmentof childrenages 1-4 and very weakly
linked with the corporalpunishmentof older children,once the confounding
effectsof backgroundfactorsare statisticallycontrolled.Thisfindinghighlights
the need to explorethe factorsthat mediatethe links between abstract,global
parentalvalues and concreteparentalbehaviors(Holden& Edwards1989).


After a long period of scholarlyneglect, a small but growing literaturehas

called attentionto the relationshipsbetween ConservativeProtestantismand
attitudes toward the corporal punishmentof children.Several studies have
suggested that membersof ConservativeProtestantdenominationsare more
likely to support the principle of corporal punishment than other persons
(Erlanger1974;Wiehe 1990).More recently,researchershave shown that such
denominationalvariationsmay actually reflect the influence of specific con-
servativetheologicalbeliefs,particularlycommitmentto the doctrineof biblical
inerrancy(Ellison& Sherkat1993a;Grasmick,Bursik& Kimpel1991).
We have extended this literature by linking conservative theological
orientationswith the actual use of physiLalpunishmentto disciplinetoddlers
and preschoolers (ages 14) and grade school-aged children (ages 5-11).
Analyzing data from a large nationalsurvey,we have presentednew evidence
ConservativeProtestantismand CoxporalPunishment/ 1021

that parentswho believe (1) that thqBibleis the inerrantWord of God and (2)
that it provides answers to all human affairs and problems use corporal
punishmentto disciplinetheirchildrenmore frequentlythanparentswith less
conservativetheologicalviews. In addition,consistentwith the thrustof some
earlierresearch(e.g.,Ellison&Sherkat1993a),statisticalcontrolsfor theological
conservatismvirtuallyeliminatethe estimatedeffectsof ConservativeProtestant
denominationalaffiliation.Further,the link betweentheologicalbeliefsand the
use of physical punishmentpersists even when the potentiallyconfounding
effectsof numerousparentaland householdcharacteristics, child characteristics
and behaviors,and global parentalchild-rearingvalues are takeninto account.
While our findings underscore the importance of religious values
particularlythose associatedwith ConservativeProtestantism- for the study
of child discipline,they also raisea numberof importantquestionsthatwarrant
clarificationin the future.First,the NSFH - like most large-scalesurveys-
does not contain detailed informationon the typeand intensityof corporal
punishment. Anecdotal evidence suggests that terms like "spanking"and
"slapping"may covera varietyof disciplinarypractices,rangingfrommild taps
or swats on the buttocks to more determinedbeatings with belts and other
objects,to the most severe forms of abuse. Obviously the levels of force and
intensity implied by these differences,and the probable consequencesfor
children, may vaxy considerably. Although some accounts suggest that
ConservativeProtestantsare proneto use particularlyviolentformsof physical
punishment(Capps1992;Maurer1982),much more informationis needed on
the diverse forms of corporal punishment administered by Conservative
Protestantsand other parents(Bartkowski1995).
Second,given our finding that the comparativelyfrequentuse of corporal
punishment by conservative religious parents is not attributableto more
negativeglobalassessmentsof children'sbehavior,we need moreinformationon
how parents arrive at decisions on disciplinary responses to specificchild
misbehaviorsunderparticular circumstances,and especiallyon how Conserva-
tive Protestant parents may differ from others in their decision-making
processes.Forinstance,given the importanceof themesof sin and punishment
in ConservativeProtestanttheologyand child-rearingphilosophy,parentsmay
be especially prone to interpretspecific child misbehaviorsas instances of
"willful disobedience,"to downplay alternativeexplanationsfor these mis-
behaviors(e.g.,"childishirresponsibility"),and to deemphasizethe role of other
types of situationalinformation(e.g., child illness, fatigueor emotionalupset,
parentalstress).In this way, the distinctivetheologicalviews of Conservative
Protestantparentsmaybe introducedinto the decision-makingprocess,possibly
leading parentsto engage in a specificversion of "thefundamentalattribution
error"- thatis, to attributemisbehaviordispositionally, as a consequenceof the
child'scharacter,ratherthansituationally,as a consequenceof the circumstances
surroundingthe event (Grasmick& McGill1994).A multimethodapproach
involvingnot only standardsurveyinstruments,but also personalizedvignettes,
in-depthinterviews,and perhapsobservationalmethods - will ultimatelybe
required to investigate these and other possible religious variations in the
parentaldecision makingprocess.
1022 / Social Forces 74:3,March1996

Third,our findings almost certainlyunderstatethe frequencywith which

focal childrenin the NSFHare physicallypunished.Thisis the case becauseour
analyses focus solely on the antecedents of spanking or slapping by one
respondentparent.However, other adults may also employ physical punish-
ment to discipline the child. This may be especially importantfor religious
conservatives.Becauseratesof religiousintermarriagearerelativelylow among
ConservativeProtestants(McCutcheon1988), one suspects that many of the
NSFHI focal children - especially toddlers and preschoolers - who are
spankedor slappedby a theologicallyconservativeparentmay also experience
corporalpunishmentfrom the respondent'sspouse or partner.It is reasonable
to hypothesize that homogamous religious conservativesmay use corporal
punishmentmore often in part because pastors,friends,and family members
are likely to provide sympatheticfeedback about the value of "traditional"
child-rearingpractices.Although an empirical explorationof this issue lies
beyond the scope of our study, it will be importantfor future researchersto
examine the role of religious beliefs in shaping the congruence(or incongru-
ence) of parentaldisciplinarypreferences,as well as the ways in which parents'
divergentviews are harmonizedin practice.
Finally,while sociologistshaveintermittentlyexploreddistinctiveaspectsof
ConservativeProtestantchild-rearingpractices(e.g.,Nelsen & Kroliczak1984;
Nunn 1964), there is virtually no solid evidence on the short- or long-term
effects of corporal punishment on the children of theologicallyconservative
parents.12 In light of our findings,such researchis clearlyneeded.As we noted
at the beginning of this article,numerousacademicand popular expertshave
expressedalarmabout the possible impact of physicalpunishmenton various
behavioraland developmentaloutcomes(see Straus1994b).However,much of
the researchon the consequencesof corporalpunishment- especiallymild to
moderate forms - suffers from methodological weaknesses. With only a
handful of exceptions (e.g., Weiss et al. 1992), work in this topic has relied
heavily on cross-sectional(as opposed to longitudinal)data or on retrospective
accountsof individuals'experiencesof corporalpunishment.Smallcommunity
or conveniencesampleshave also been the normin this area.In addition,some
researchers have also combined indicators of corporal punishment with
indicatorsof tougher disciplinarypractices- e.g., severe beatings,threatsor
assaultswith knives and guns - to constructmeasuresof "harshpunishment"
or the like.
Although such omnibusmeasuresare often correlatedwith negativechild
outcomes, they are of little help in specifying the effects of mild to moderate
corporalpunishmenton children.Further,studies have routinelyneglectedto
controlfor other aspects of child rearing(e.g., amountof qualitytime between
parent and child, level of parental support and nurturance),which may be
related to the use of physical punishmentand may accountfor the empirical
association between such punishment and negative child and adolescent
outcomes(Simons,Johnson& Conger1994).Moreover,only a few studies have
investigatedthe potentialmediatingandmoderatingeffectsof variouscontextu-
al factors (e.g., mode of administration,r6gularityand promptness,clarity of
parentalexplanation)on the consequencesof corporalpunishment(Kurz1991;
Larzelere1986,1994;Larzelereet al. 1989).For these and otherreasons,it may
ConservativeProtestantismand CorporalPunishment/ 1023

be prematureto draw firm conclusionsabout the effects of mild to moderate

Nevertheless,if the concernsof many academicand popular child devel-
opment specialists are on target, then we might expect to find that children
from theologicallyconservativefamilies - who as a group are more likely to
experiencefrequentcorporalpunishmentthanothers- exhibitheightenedrisk
of variousundesirablechild and adolescentoutcomes.YetleadingConservative
essentialfor preventingsuch outcomesand for raisinghealthy,happy, Christian
children(Christenson1970;Daugherty1991;Dobson 1970,1976;LaHaye1977;
Swindoll1991).And while the empiricalevidenceis not unequivocal,a number
of studies over the years have reportedthat religiosityand religiousparticipa-
tion among youths - especially those from conservativebackgrounds- are
associatedwith lower risk of substanceuse and abuse, other forms of delin-
quentbehavior,teen pregnancy,and even academicfailure (e.g., Beck,Cole &
Why might corporalpunishmenthave fewer harmful(perhapseven some
beneficial)consequencesfor ConservativeProtestantsthanfor otheryouths?We
suggest two possible reasons. First, the effects of even frequentspanking or
slapping may be less damaging in culturalcontexts in which the practiceof
corporalpunishmentis widely acceptedas legitimate.It is conceivablethat the
discoursewithin ConservativeProtestantfamilies,churches,and communities
-where corporalpunishmenthas been the normfor manygenerations(Greven
1977)- may mitigatethe negativeemotions(amongchildrenand parents)that
sometimes accompany physical punishments in other contexts. Second,
ConservativeProtestantsmay implementthispunishmentdifferentlyfromother
parents.Forinstance,religiouschild-rearingmanualsoftendevote considerable
attention to the details of administeringcorporal punishment, instructing
parentson when to spank,what type of "rod"to use, how and where to hit the
child safely, and so forth (e.g., Dobson 1976 and Lessin 1979;see Bartkowski
1995;Ellison& Bartkowski1996;Greven1990).As we noted earlier,while a few
religious commentatorsadvocate the broad use of relatively harsh corporal
punishment (Fabrizio1969;Fugate 1980), the most popular of these authors
(Christenson1970;Dobson 1970, 1976;Swindoll 1991) recommendthe use of
moderate physical force only in clear instances of "willful disobedience."
Further,they specificallycounsel againstspankingwhen the parentis angryor
when the behavioralinfractioninvolves childishirresponsibilityor some other
well-intentionedmistake. These authors are careful to distinguish moderate
corporal punishment from physical abuse, and to warn parents about the
potential for escalation (Dobson 1976:73-76;Swindoll 1991:82-85).Moreover,
several leading ConservativeProtestantcommentatorsalso advise parents to
initiatea period of intimacyand affectionwith the child afterthe punishment
(Christenson1970;Dobson 1976).
In short, such mild to moderatespankingwould differsubstantiallyfrom
the frustrated,hostile use of physical force decriedby academicand popular
parentingspecialistsalike.Of course,to datethereis littleempiricalinformation
on the precise methods of implementationactually used by theologically
conservativeparents,or the extentto which theirpracticesin this areaparallel
1024 / Social Forces 74:3, March 1996

those recommendedby Dobson and others.Similarly,it is unclearwhetherthe

effectsof such methodswould be more benignthanthe negativeconsequences
associated with harsherpractices.Given that religious conservativesalmost
certainlyconstitutethe largestand best-organizedconstituencyadvocatingthe
use of corporal punishment, the resolution of these issues should be an
importantpriorityof researchersin the future.

1. Here we use the term Conservative Protestantas an umbrellaterm to referto fundamentalists

and other evangelicals.Although the fundamentalistlabel is sometimesused in preciselysuch
an inclusive fashion, this label is hotly contested.Many evangelicalsrejectthe fundamentalist
label because of its pejorativeconnotationin the media and in broadersociety and because of
various religious and political differenceswith fundamentalists.
2. We use these insider documentsto clarify the worldview of ConservativeProtestantswith
regard to issues of child discipline. We do not assume that these child-rearingmanuals
influencethe practicesof parents,but only that these authorsgenerallyreflectand articulatethe
views and sensibilities of religious conservatives. Because our goal is to identify common
themes in this popular literature,we necessarilydownplay the heterogeneityon some issues
within the conservativecamp (Bartkowski1995;Ellison& Bartkowski1996).In addition,while
our work focuses on contemporaryreligious conservatives,Greven (1977)has called attention
to the considerablecontinuity between their views on child rearingand those of many early
3. While most prominentConservativeProtestantchild-rearingwriters endorse such beliefs in
original sin, their beliefs are not unanimous.For instance,Campbell(1989, 1992) argues that
many writers in this genre exaggeratethe salience of themes of sin and punishmentat the
expense of a more fundamentalmessage of divine love and mercy.
4. Some researchershave suggested that indicatorstappingvariationsin religiosityor religious
participationmay be moreclosely relatedto family attitudesand practicesthan denominational
ties or theologicalorientations(e.g.,Alwin 1986).Therefore,we also constructedan eight-point
ordinal measureof the frequencyof churchattendancesimilarto that included in the General
Social Surveys.This variablewas unrelatedto the frequencyof corporalpunishment.
5. The NSFH interview schedule also contains a third item tapping ConservativeProtestant
sensibilities. This item asks respondents to indicate their level of (dis)agreementwith the
following statement:"I regard myself as a religious fundamentalist.' This item seems less
closely related to the theoreticalargumentsoutlined earlier than the items on Bible beliefs.
Further,becausethe termxfundamentalist has no clear translationin Spanish,the inclusionof this
item would require dropping a small number of Hispanics who completed the interview in
Spanish.For these reasons,we omit the "fundamentalist"item from our analyses.
6. These indicatorsof child behaviorsare moderatelyintercorrelated(.20 < r < .35). However
they do not comprisea satisfactoryindex (a < .55) in any combination,and the incrementto R
is greater when they are added individually as predictors of the frequency of corporal
7. The numbers of Asian and Pacific Islanders, Native Americans/AmericanIndians, and
various other categorieswere too small to analyze, and these groups were dropped from the
models that follow. In addition, the numbersof Puerto Ricans (even with oversampling)and
Cuban Americanswere still too small for separateanalyses of these diverse segments of the
Hispanic (Latino)population.Although the NSFH also oversampledcohabitors,there are not
enough cohabiting respondents who are parents of focal children to permit meaningful
8. Given the hierarchicalstructureof these OLSregressionmodels, one possible interpretation
of this finding is that authority-mindedparentsate prone to evaluate their children'sbehavior
negatively. Because the preoccupation with issues of authority and (dis)obedience may
influence the encoding and interpretationof child conduct, and hence the overall assessment
of child behaviorsduringthe period priorto the interview,one might expect that the estimated
ConservativeProtestantismand CorporalPunishment/ 1025
net effect of parental child-rearingvalues would be slight once the potentially confounding
effects of these assessmentswere taken into account.However, ancillarymodels (not shown)
cast doubt on this interpretation;when we estimatedmodels that indudedparentalvalues and
excludedparents'reportsof child conduct, the results did not change.
9. We acknowledge some potential for response bias. Theologicallyliberal respondentsmay
tend to understatetheir 'true" or accuratelevels of corporalpunishmentfor fear of inviting
disapproval from the interviewer or from their fellows. On the other hand, religious
conservativesmay be inclined to respond accurately,or even to exaggeratetheir use of such
disciplinary techniques, because their use is approved and encouraged within many
ConservativeProtestantcommunities.Of course, all respondents,but especially conservative
religious parents,who spank or slap their children may also be inclined to underestimatethe
frequencyof these practices,due to the specter of interventionby local or state social service
agencies concemed with child protection.Therefore,we doubt that response bias adequately
accountsfor the empiricalpatternsdiscussed in the text.
10. In additional analyses (Ellison, Bartkowski& Segal 1996), we estimated the effects of
ConservativeProtestantismand covariateson an ordinalmeasureof the frequencyof corporal
punishment(with responsecategories"never,"'seldom," 'sometimes,"or "very often")asked
of all NSFH primaryrespondentswho were parents of childrenunder 12 living in the home.
While most findings paralleledthose reportedin the text, it is interestingthat both household
income and (particularly)parentaleducation emerged as significantinverse predictorsof the
frequencyof corporal punishmentin those analyses. The meaning of this discrepancyis not
entirely clear, but one possibility is especially intriguing:Some better-educatedand more
affluent parent respondents may have provided (what for them may be) socially desirable
responses, underestimating their frequency of corporal punishment when presented with
vague, ordinal response categories.Such "hedging' may have been more difficultfor parental
respondentswho were asked for a more precise count covering the week prior to the NSFH
11. Becausesouthernand ruralresidenceare related to attitudestoward corporalpunishment
(e.g., Flynn 1994), we included these variables in preliminarymodels. When both residential
variables were consistently unrelated to the frequency of corporal punishment, they were
dropped from subsequentanalyses.
12. Nelsen and Kroliczak(1984) and Nunn (1964) present evidence that parents' use of the
threatthat "Godwill punish" - perhapsparticularlycharacteristicof ConservativeProtestant
households - may promote self-blameand obediencein children.However, they report that
the impact of these parental "coalitionswith God" on the development of internal controls
seems to depend on images of God and perhaps other factors as well. Additional researchis
needed to determinewhether physical punishmenthelps to promoteinternalcontrolsamong


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