A new study claims that maternal love can soften the blows of harsh physical discipline. Corporal punishment has been widely discredited by child psychologists as an effective method of discipline, since hitting children, as well as verbally threatening and insulting them, often trains them to externalize aggression against others and behave antisocially as they grow older.

In a study published in the journal Parenting: Science and Practice, however, researchers found that the psychological pain of physical discipline was limited by a mother's maternal warmth toward her children-- even if their mothers beat or berated them occasionally, children in the study did not act out as long as they felt loved.

Dr. Miguelina Germán led researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York in a study of 189 Mexican-American teenagers who attended 7th or 8th grade in low-income public schools in Phoenix, Arizona, and their parents. The researchers wanted to investigate attitudes towards harsh punishment in a specific demographic in which they found it be relatively common.

The researchers interviewed the teenagers with measures from the "Children's Reports of Parents' Behavior Inventory," which allowed them to rate their feelings toward their parents and their discipline methods, and asked mothers to rate their teenager's behavior on the "Child Behavior Checklist."

The results showed that their perception of maternal love kept the teenagers from externalizing problems and acting aggressively if they were harshly disciplined. Teenagers who felt more loved by their mothers showed no correlation between harsh discipline and antisocial behavior, while those who felt less maternal love tended to show a stronger correlation between harsh discipline and later antisocial behavior.

Germán suggests that if children know they're loved, and that physical discipline is backed by good intentions, being hit or verbally berated is unlikely to lead to externalizing aggression. Her perspective comes from attachment theory, which suggests that "warm, responsive parenting is the critical factor in producing securely attached children who, in turn, develop positive secure internal working models of their parents."

Even if parents occasionally hit their children to discipline them, or otherwise use harsh verbal or physical methids, the children are unlikely to perceive their parents' behavior as rejection if they feel emotionally supported and have a firm belief that they are loved.

Germán notes in her research that harsh discipline methods are more common among Mexican-American mothers than among European-American mothers even after controlling for socioeconomic status. Such methods may stem from "traditional Latino cultural values rooted in interdependence, such as respeto (respect) and bien educación (social responsibility)," which leads Mexican-American mothers to be less forgiving and more critical of inappropriate behavior in their children.

Additionally, children who live in low-income or high-crime neighborhoods and feel warmth from their mothers may believe that their harsh discipline methods are motivated by a fear of them coming to harm. Germán suggests that this is especially true in Arizona, where anti-immigrant sentiment among the general population can poison the social climate among Mexican-Americans in certain communities.

The findings suggest that corporal punishment itself is not automatically responsible for children growing up to behave aggressively or antisocially. The real problem may be insecure attachment, in which parents treat their children harshly but without affection.

In closing, the researchers clarify that they do not encourage harsh punishments. They do, however, encourage cultural perspective among childcare specialists:

"It is important to note that we are not endorsing the use of harsh discipline practices because under conditions of low warmth, the use of such practices predicted higher levels of externalizing over time. Nevertheless, this study joins a small, but growing body of literature that suggests the effects of harsh discipline are not direct but conditional."