Gustavo Carlo, University of Missouri – Discipline and Child Behavior

Debate over physical punishment for children still abounds.

Gustavo Carlo, professor of diversity at the University of Missouri, discusses this issue.

Dr. Carlo received his Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Arizona State University in 1994. Currently, he is the Millsap Professor of Diversity and Multicultural Psychology at the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at the University of Missouri. He teaches courses in child development, prosocial and moral development, and culture. His primary area of interest is culture and moral development. His research focuses on the sociocultural, socialization, and personality processes associated with helping behaviors in children and adolescents.

Discipline and Child Behavior


  The discussion about the effects of physical punishment on children is still ongoing in many circles. Prior studies have determined that there are negative associations between discipline and behavior that are typically observed in less than one year. Is it possible for children to experience long-term effects as well?

            We noted the research was limited in studying children’s social behaviors among low-income, racially-diverse populations. So, we intended to answer these questions by analyzing data from Head Start, a federal program that provides comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families. Approximately 2,000 mothers and children from Head Start participated in the study and all participants identified as either European American or African American. The children were approximately 15 months old, 25 months old and in the fifth grade when the information was collected.

            Our team found that if an African American child was severely punished as early as 15 months old, they were more likely to display negative behaviors, such as aggression or irritability, and less likely to show positive behaviors, such as helping others, ten years later.

While we didn’t find this link for European-American children, we did find that negative emotions determined similar outcomes. Generally speaking, if a child from either group practiced good self-regulation, then we expected to see positive behaviors.

            Prior studies have addressed parental discipline practices and how likely they reflect parents’ expectations for children. Our findings expand the research by showing how parents treat their children can have a long-lasting significant impact on their temperament. Our team recommends parents teach them how to regulate behaviors early in order to nurture positive behaviors. We believe our research will help parents and teachers better understand the well-being and resiliency in low-income, racially-diverse children.