Disciplinary incidents are central to moral development because disciplinary practices assist to inculcate moral standards and values that form the basis for self-controlled behaviour and in the process resolve the salient conflicts between self and societal interests within the child (Brody & Shaffer, 1982; Hoffman, 1983). Amongst the various disciplinary methods, physical punishment is widely practised across different cultures and countries. The present study focuses on non-abusive physical punishment and adopts the definition by Straus (1994) that physical punishment “is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child’s behaviour” (p.4). This definition is used to delineate non-abusive physical punishment from harsher forms of abusive punishment. The term “corporal punishment” is synonymous and has been used interchangeably with physical punishment. We use the term “physical punishment” in this study because it specifically indicates that punishment is meted out in a physical and bodily manner.
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A survey in Jamaica revealed that physical punishment is frequently practiced in both home and school (Smith & Mosby, 2003). Physical punishment is also common in south-west Ethiopia (Admassu, Belachew, & Haileamalak, 2006). This disciplinary method, however, is not peculiar to developing countries. Approximately 60% of Hong Kong Chinese parents admitted to using physical punishment as a form of discipline (Tang, 2006). Even in a socially privileged country such as America, 94-percent of 3- and 4-year olds have been physically punished by their parents at least once during the past year (Straus & Stewart, 1999), and 85% of Americans believe that “a good hard spanking is sometimes necessary” (Bauman & Friedman, 1998). Beliefs in its positive disciplinary effects contribute to the widespread use of physical punishment (Straus, 1994) and there are evidence-based studies that support the idea that physical punishment suppresses undesired behaviour (Gershoff, 2002; Larzelere, 2000; Paolucci & Violato, 2004). For example, studies in Larzelere’s (2000) meta-analysis provide evidence that non-abusive spanking used by loving parents reduces subsequent noncompliance and fighting in 2- to 6- year-olds. In relation to Larzelere’s (2000) findings, Gershoff (2002) also found a large mean effect size for immediate compliance following corporal punishment. However, as noted by Gershoff (2002), these beneficial outcomes are only temporarily because it neither teaches children the reasons for behaving correctly, nor does it communicate the effects their behaviours have on others. Hence, physical punishment may not facilitate moral internalisation of the intended disciplinary message (Gershoff, 2002). Moreover, the demerits may outweigh the merits of punishment because studies suggest that physical punishment carry with it unintended and adverse effects (Holden, 2002; Rohner, Kean, & Cournoyer, 1991; Straus, 1994). In response to the increasingly condemnatory international views about physical punishment, 25 states, to date, have abolished all forms of physical punishment on children (Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, 2009).
Burgeoning research has related physical punishment to a variety of negative effects. These effects range from social-emotional and psychological problems, such as mental distress and withdrawal (Eamon, 2001; Bachar, Canetti, Bonne, DeNour, & Shalev, 1997), to behavioural problems, such as antisocial behaviour and increased aggression (Coie & Dodge, 1998; Deater-Deckard, Dodge, Blates, & Pettit, 1996; Larzelere & Smith, 2000; Mulvaney & Mebert, 2007; Sim & Ong, 2005; Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims, 1997; Tang, 2006). Straus et al. (1997) suggest that a “dose response” to physical punishment for children may exist, such that the more frequent the punishment and the longer it is used on the child, will lead to increased probability of behaviour problems. These potentially adverse effects of physical punishment may also carry over into adulthood in the form of increased psychopathology and violent behaviour (Eron, 1996); substance abuse (Holmes and Robins, 1988; Lau, Kim, Tsui, Cheung, Lau, & Yu, 2005), depression, family violence, and suicide (Afifi, Brownridge, Cox, & Sareen, 2006; Straus, 1995; Straus & Kantor, 1994; Straus & Yodanis, 1996). Eron (1996) indicated that the more harshly 8- and 9-year olds children were punished, the more aggressive and antisocial they were in late adolescence and young adulthood. Afifi and colleagues (2006) also found individuals who were physically punished, as compared to those who were not, had higher risk for major depression, alcohol abuse or dependence and externalising problems in adulthood, and these effects were no attenuated after controlling for sociodemographic variables and parental bonding dimensions. Straus (1995), in addition, found significant and positive correlation between the level of punishment experienced as a child and level of depressive symptomatology and thoughts of committing suicide in adulthood, after controlling for SES, martial violence, and witnessing violence as a child.
In the past decade, at least three meta-analyses have been conducted to review research on the effects of physical punishment. Larzelere (2000) reviewed a total of 38 studies and found both beneficial (as discussed above) and negative effects of physical punishment. From 17 causally relevant studies, the author highlighted apparent detrimental effects of physical punishment. He first pointed out that physical punishment predicted increased subsequent negative externalising behaviour, supporting the “violence begets violence” viewpoint. One of the studies reviewed was the controlled longitudinal studies of the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (Larzelere & Smith, 2000), which provided not only consistent but also causally relevant evidence that physical punishment is associated to subsequent increase in antisocial behaviour. Secondly, Larzelere (2000) indicated that physical punishment predicted increased mental health problems. The links between physical punishment and both increased negative externalising behaviour and mental health problems are further supported by another meta-analysis, which evaluated 88 published works spanning a 62 year period. Gershoff’s (2002) meta-analysis found that physical punishment is indeed significantly associated to increased aggression, increased delinquency, increased antisocial behaviour, and decreased mental health, to name a few.
All 20 studies involving mental health in Gershoff’s (2000) meta-analysis found frequency of corporal punishment to be positively and significantly related to a decrease in children’s mental health. The association between corporal punishment and increased depression (DuRant, Cadenhead, Pendergrast, Slavens, & Linder, 1994; McLoyd, Jayarante, Ceballo, & Borquez, 1994; Turner & Muller, 2004) remained significant after controlling for age, gender, family socioeconomic status (SES), and history of physical abuse (Turner & Finkelhor, 1996). Additionally, Straus and Kantor (1994) reported that after controlling for low SES, those who experienced corporal punishment in adolescence were at higher risk for depression, suicidal thoughts and alcohol abuse. However, these findings were not congruent with the meta-analysis by Paolucci and Violato (2004). They evaluated 70 studies between 1961 and 2000, and suggested that exposure to corporal punishment did not lead in an increased risk of developing any cognitive problems, such as academic performance, suicidal thoughts, and attitudes toward violence, and only a small, negligible, increased risk for developing emotional and behavioural problems. Such conflicting conclusions from the three meta-analyses may be due to the researchers using different definitions of physical punishment and inclusion criteria. Gershoff (2000) evaluated studies that include punishment ranging from moderate normative spanking to severe forms of physical punishment, whereas the other two meta-analyses incorporated studies that adhere to a more restricted definition, specifically studies that only evaluate non-abusive physical punishment and eliminated studies with measures that were dominated by severity.
Physical punishment also appears to have a dampening effect on self-esteem in its victims. However, studies have been inconclusive and evidence-based literature in this area is much thinner, as compared to the large number of published articles on physical punishment and increased externalising behaviours, such as children’s aggression, which is one of the most studied in the literature on parenting (Coie & Dodge, 1998; Paolucci & Violato, 2004). Only 3 studies (Adams, 1995; Larzelere, Kein, Schumm, & Alibrano, 1989; Sears, 1970) cited in Larzelere’s (2000) meta-analysis, investigated the association between physical punishment and self-esteem. The amount of spanking received in adolescence negatively predicted self-esteem but the correlations between punishment, self-esteem, and perception of fairness of punishment were reduced to non-significance after controlling for parental positive communication (Larzelere et al, 1989), and the study conducted by Sears (1970) did not find a significant correlation between physical punishment and subsequent self-esteem. However, Larzelere (2000) reviewed that Sears’s study did not directly examined physical punishment but measured parent dominance instead.
On the other hand, Adams (1995) found lower self-esteem among 6- to 12-year olds, especially those who have been hit with high frequency (twice a week), even after controlling for variables such as ethnicity, cognitive enrichment and poverty. Furthermore, there are recent studies which were not included in the meta-analysis that also found similar pattern of results. Using data from 1,397 children, Eamon (2001) found that frequent use of physical punishment is directly related to children’s internalising problems (such as withdrawal and sadness), and socio-emotional problems like low self-esteem. In another study, Amato and Fowler (2002) used data from the National Survey of Families and Households to investigate the relationship between parental use of corporal punishment and children’s self-esteem. From the data collected from 3,400 households with a child between the age range of 5 to 18, they similarly found parents’ use of corporal punishment to predict lower self-esteem. Bauman and Friedman (1998) argued that such punishment retards the development of self-esteem, and Paolucci and Violato (2004) used findings of corporal punishment being associated with psychosocial problems, such as depression, as supporting evidence that physical punishment is related to damaged self-esteem. Coercive disciplinary techniques have also been linked to decreases in children’s level of confidence and assertiveness, and increases in feelings of humiliation and helplessness (Gershoff, 2002). One explanation for these findings is that the fear of punishment makes people attempt to escape. However, when escaping from such punishment is not possible, feelings of learned helplessness and depression may develop (Paolucci & Violato, 2004).
Self-esteem, as defined by Rosenberg (1965), is a positive or negative attitude towards the self. Interestingly, self-esteem stability in childhood and adolescence does not differ between genders (Trzesniewski, Donnellan, & Robins, 2003). Research has shown that self-esteem has a pervasive impact on an individual’s life in numerous areas, for instance emotion, social functioning, behaviour and competency. Emotionally, individuals with low self-esteem have a tendency to exhibit higher levels of anxiety, experience more frequent psychosomatic symptoms, feelings of depression, inferiority, timidity, and lack of personal acceptance and submissiveness (Battle, 1992).
Self-esteem also affects one’s social functioning. Growe (1980) found that children with high self-esteem participate more actively and independently in social groups and have higher popularity among peers. Moreover, children with low self-esteem report more difficulties forming friendships, tend not to resist social pressures, and are usually the ‘invisible members’ of the group (Battle, 1992).
Low self-esteem as an important predictor for disruptive and maladaptive behaviours has also been supported by studies on different populations. A significant negative correlation between self-esteem and behaviour problems as rated by the teachers of second-grade children and eight-year-old children, were respectively found by Vandergriff and Rust (1989) and Easterbrooks and Abeles (2000). Likewise, Aunola, Stattin, and Nurmi (2000) found that low self-esteem was associated to 15-year old adolescents’ maladjustment at school and externalising problem behaviours such as aggression.
Ample research evidence also supports the significant relationship between positive self-esteem and academic self-efficacy. Jonson-Reid, Davis, Saunders, Williams, and Williams (2005), for instance, found a moderate and statistically significant association between global self-esteem and academic self-efficacy among 1,200 African American youths in high school. A similar pattern of results has also been found among middle-school students. Smith, Walker, Fields, Brookins, and Seary (1999) found middle-school students’ self-esteem positively and significantly correlated with academic self-efficacy. Using a sample of 153 seventh-grade students in Singapore, Ang, Neubronner, Oh, and Leong (2006) similarly found positive self-esteem predicted students’ mastery goal orientation and academic self-efficacy while negative self-esteem predicted disruptive behaviour.
An important trend in international research focuses on the effects of physical punishment (Ripoll- Núñez & Rohner, 2006). Considering that self-esteem has a wide range of influence on an individual’s life and the current literature remains inconclusive on the effects physical punishment have on the child self-esteem, we chose to investigate the relationship between non-abusive physical punishment administered by the child’s main disciplinarian and the child’s level of self-esteem. Self-esteem plays a vital role in the development of a child, and if physical punishment has negative effects on the child’s self-esteem, it is likely that his level of self-esteem will affect his psychosocial and educational development, and overall his well-being. For instance, the ability to socialise and academic success contribute to one’s current and future well-being. Since both Larzelere (2000) and Gershoff (2002) concur that there is a positive relation between the frequency and negative outcomes of physical punishment, with increased frequency of physical punishment, we expect lower self-esteem among its victims.
The weight of the existing research, as discussed above, seems to favour the viewpoint that non-abusive physical punishment carries with it negative baggage. However, unlike physical abuse, the conclusion that non-abusive physical punishment indeed has detrimental consequences on children’s well-being cannot be substantiated. Researchers at the opposite end of the debate cite conflicting evidence and physical punishment remains the most controversial topic in the domain of parental discipline (Holden, 2002; Larzelere, 1996). The main debate remains on whether non-abusive physical punishment is completely harmful or it has negative effects only when used within certain conditions. As summarised by Ripoll- Núñez and Rohner (2006), the “conditional defenders” of corporal punishment argue that the effects of punishment may be positive, negative, or both depending on the conditions in which it was administered. Indeed, as proposed in Gershoff’s process-context model (2002), the link between physical punishment and its impact on the child is not direct and isolated. Instead, contextual factors of varying levels of influence moderate the processes linking physical punishment and child constructs (Gershoff, 2002). This is evident from the fact that majority of the 94-percent of Americans who experienced physical punishment did not experience negative outcomes, such as developing into clinically aggressive adults or criminals. Critics of past research argue that many studies which linked physical punishment to negative effects have methodological flaws because they did not take into account the influence of moderating variables, which when included, tend to attenuate the relationship between punishment and negative child outcomes (Rohner, Bourque, & Elordi, 1996). Since not all individuals who experienced non-abusive physical punishment experience negative outcomes, the present study further examined two potential moderators of the punishment-self-esteem link: namely, child’s perceived fairness of physical punishment and child’s perception on caregiver acceptance-rejection.
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Typically, research in this area has relied on parental reports of physical punishment. However, the possibility that parents underreport the use of physical punishment due to social desirability effects cannot be ruled out (Shum-Cheun, Hawkins, & Lim, 2006). That is, parents may feel threaten to disclose the frequency with which they physically punish their children because it is not advocated in contemporary society, hence providing inaccurate data (Shum-Cheun et al., 2006). Moreover, if parent is the source of data on both the punishment and child’s behaviours, they may attempt to justify their punishment through the parental report of child behaviour (Bauman & Friedman, 1998). Following, we collected retrospective account of physical punishment from the recipients of the disciplinary practice, and further explored the possible moderating effect their cognitive perception on the punishment, may exert on the punishment-self-esteem link. The impact of punishment on children is not unidirectional because children are not simply passive recipients of the punishment administered by their disciplinarian. Instead how children perceive the punishment may affect the impact it has on their outcomes.
As noted by Holden (2002), noticeably absent from research is studies of children’s perceptions and reactions to punishment. It has been suggested that effect of physical punishment may be moderated by the meaning the child ascribes to the punishment (Benject & Kazdin, 2003). Ignorance of this may lead to an inaccurate picture on the effects of physical punishment, because the key to understanding how physical punishment affects its victims lies in understanding how they react to the punishment physiologically, affectively, and cognitively (Gershoff, 2002). Holden (2002) further posited that this reaction involves at least two-process: an immediate physiological and sensory reaction, followed by a secondary cognitive appraisal stage. In line with Ripoll- Núñez and Rohner’s (2006) suggestions on variables that are important in the research of physical punishment and its effects on children, we explored the potential moderating effect of children’s perceived fairness of physical punishment, which has been considered to ameliorate the negative outcomes of punishment (Rohner et al., 1991; Rohner et al., 1996). Since children are the recipient of parental disciplinary practice, the knowledge of their perceptions of the fairness of punishment will open the window to their internal mental processes, which is how they interpret and internalise the punishment. This provides a more complete understanding of the relationship between punishment and self-esteem. Concerns regarding whether children are mature enough to make sensible judgments about the fairness of discipline can be allayed because Konstantareas and Desbois (2001) found that even 4-year olds preschoolers were capable of making judgments about the fairness of discipline by mothers, and this is also found in a study conducted in Singapore, which found parents’ and 10- to 12-years old children’s responses on fairness of discipline to be similar (Shan et al., 2006). If children perceive physical punishment as a fair way of disciplining, the effects of punishment on their self-esteem may not be deleterious. Following, the negative association between punishment and self-esteem can be expected to be stronger at lower levels, as compared with higher levels of perceived fairness.
Little is known about the conditions under which punishment occurs (Bauman & Friedman, 1998) and if information regarding the context in which the punishment is meted out is not captured, only a snapshot of the impact of physical punishment on children will be known. Opponents of physical punishment have acknowledge that physical punishment by itself is unlikely to produce negative child outcomes, but when in combination with other risk factors in the family, negative effects of punishment may surface (Bauman & Friedman, 1998). Therefore, certain factors in the child’s family may also influence the cognitive appraisal process of the punishment and, consequently, buffer the negative effects it has on the child’s outcome. Corporal punishment is considered to be beneficial when administered by emotionally supportive parents who share positive interactions with their children (Paolucci & Violato, 2004). As discussed above, Larzelere et al. (1989) found that positive parental communication moderated the punishment-self-esteem link. Therefore, information regarding other aspects of parenting, such as the warmth dimension, will provide a much fuller understanding towards the relationship between physical punishment and self-esteem. As construed in the parental acceptance-rejection theory (PART), parental acceptance and rejection form the warmth dimension of parenting (Rohner, 1991). PART predicts that, as compared to children who perceived themselves as being accepted by their parents, rejected children tend to have an impaired sense of self-esteem, amidst other negative effects (Rohner, 1991). The author further suggested an explanation on how parental rejection may affect self-esteem using Mead’s (1934) concept of the “significant other”. PART assumes that everyone tend to view ourselves as we imagine “significant others” view us. Therefore, if our parents who are the most significant other reject us, we are more likely to define ourselves as unworthy, and consequently we develop an overall sense of negative self-evaluation, including feelings of negative self-esteem and self-adequacy (Rohner, 1991). Although the term “parent” is used in PART, Rohner (1991) explained it refers to the major caregiver of the child, not necessarily the parents. Consequently, we use the term “caregiver” instead of “parent” in our study.
Variations in perceived caregiver acceptance among children may magnify or minimise the effects of physical punishment and this has been supported by cross-cultural evidence. Rohner et al. (1991), for example, found severe physical punishment to be related to psychological maladjustment among Kittitian youths and the effects became more substantial when it is paired with caregiver rejection. Similarly, results from another study conducted in Georgia showed that the association between perceived harshness of punishment and psychological maladjustment disappeared once perceptions of caregiver acceptance-rejection were accounted for (Rohner et al., 1996). In the context of Singapore, perceived parental acceptance-rejection has also been found to play an important moderating role. Sim and Ong (2005) found that low perceived father’s rejection moderated the link between slapping and daughter’s level of aggression for daughters. Low perceived mother’s rejection was also found to moderate the link between caning and aggression among Singaporean Chinese preschoolers aged 4- to 6-years old. (Sim and Ong, 2005). All these studies uniformly showed children’s perception of caregiver acceptance-rejection has a significant impact on the association between physical punishment and its outcomes. Findings from a study investigating the relationship between self-esteem and college students’ memories of the use of corporal punishment suggested that, while positive home factors such as positive parenting have mediating effect on the severity of negative effects of punishment, self-concept was still negatively affected by experiences of corporal punishment (Hyman, 1996). Thus, we expect that at higher compared to lower levels of perceived caregiver-rejection, a stronger negative association between punishment and self-esteem will exist.
Rather than collecting data on the frequency of punishment by main caregiver and child’s perceived caregiver’s acceptance-rejection, the current study collected separate data on the frequency of punishment administered by the child’s main disciplinarian and the child’s perception of caregiver acceptance-rejection. This is because our study used a Singapore Chinese sample, and it is common within this group that the main disciplinarian may not be the main caregiver. In Chinese societies, traditional roles of disciplinarian and caregiver are respectively played by fathers and mothers, and this role differentiation still applies in Singapore (Quah, 1999). In cases where the disciplinarian and caregiver are different persons, the child may experience more punishment from the disciplinarian as compared to the caregiver, and the impact of punishment from the main disciplinarian is not reflected because only punishment administered by the caregiver is collected. Although the main disciplinarian is the adult who administers the punishment, the child’s main caregiver plays the key role in caring for the child; hence effects of the punishment may be moderated by the child’s perception of acceptance by his main caregiver, who spends the most time with the child. Collecting data on children’s perception of caregiver’s acceptance-rejection allowed us to examine the punishment-self-esteem link through the relationship between caregiver and child.
As pointed out by Larzelere (2000), one of the needs in the research on physical punishment is for studies to take a developmental perspective because reviews by Larzelere (2000) and Gershoff (2002) both found outcomes of punishment varied by the child’s age. For example, Gershoff (2002) found that with increased age, the association between corporal punishment and aggressive and antisocial behaviours became stronger. Following, we used a retrospective design to investigate the association between physical punishment and self-esteem, and the impact the two potential moderators might have on this link, at two different age frames, namely when the individual was 11 to 12 years old (middle childhood) and 15 to 16 years old (adolescence). Although physical punishment is at its zenith when children are 3 to 5 years old (Straus & Stewart, 1999), and its frequency decreases as children grow older, physical punishment is still prevalent during adolescence (Straus et al., 1997). Straus (1994), in addition, found more than 60-percent of the parents in two large, nationally representative samples of families in America reported hitting school-age children of ages 10 to 12. The authors also indicated that even in adolescence (ages 15 to 17), one of four still experiences physical punishment. Moreover, it appears that physical punishment on teenagers may interfere with their transitions to adulthood, in terms of development and autonomy (Straus et al., 1997).
These two age frames were chosen partly because this study is retrospective in nature, and memories of punishment incidents during early childhood may be weak due to the long time passage that has past. Additionally, an average Singapore student aged 11- to 12- years old and 15- to 16- years old, is in preparation for the national examinations, respectively the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) and GCE ‘O’ Levels. Being the periods of their major examinations, memories during these periods may be much clearer and distinct, and this will provide the study with a more accurate data. Another reason for focusing at these age ranges is that children of these ages have the ability to view themselves in terms of stable dispositions, which permit them to combine their separate self-evaluations into an overall sense of self-esteem (Berk, 2006). Moreover, unlike during early childhood, individual differences in self-esteem from middle childhood to adolescence become increasingly stable (Trzesniweski et al., 2003). These allow us to explore the punishment-self-esteem link more precisely.
According to Erikson’s (1950) stages of psychosocial development, he organised life into eight stages that extend from birth to death, and the two related stages for this study are ‘latency’ (6 to 12 years) and ‘adolescence’ (12 to 18 years). During the latency stage, children enter school and are required to develop a sense of competence through the social interactions in school. With a wider range of socialisation opportunities, their relationships with parents may no longer be the most significant but it remains influential because those who receive little or no encouragement from parents, teachers or peers will doubt their ability to succeed (Erikson, 1950). However, in the adolescence stage, the need to develop an independent identity, which is separate from family, becomes the key developmental task, and relationships with peer groups become the most significant relationship. Hence the attenuation of familial influence decreased as compared to when they were 1- and 12-years old. Moreover, 15- and 16-years old children fall in Piaget’s formal operational stage, which represents the apex of cognitive development (Siegler & Richards, 1982). Unlike the previous stage, concrete operational children (7 to 11 years) can only “operate on reality”, but formal operational adolescents develop the ability for abstract thinking and can engage in hypothetico-deductive reasoning and propositional thought, to conjure more general logical rules through internal reflection (Berk, 2006). Additionally, they can apply their abstract reason abilities to all areas of life (Siegler & Richards, 1982). Following, it may be the case that children’s perceptions of caregiver acceptance-rejection play a greater role, as compared to perception of fairness, in moderating the association between punishment and self-esteem, when children are aged 11 to 12. This is because their social circle though expanded, still centres around their parents and how accepted or rejected they perceived their caregiver to be may still play a significant role unlike in the adolescence phrase. When they are aged 15 and 16, adolescent’s perception of fairness of the punishment may matter more than their perceived caregiver acceptance because their relationship with their caregiver is not the most critical factor in their psychosocial development. Additionally, their growing need for independence from their parents as well as their capacities to think through their own best interests with their greater cognitive awareness, may affect them to place more emphasis on what they think and less on what their caregiver thinks of them.
Within the realm of punishment research, it is also important to acknowledge the existing attitudes to physical punishment within the particular culture. As pointed out by proponents of physical punishment, aside from the family, the cultural context is also a factor that can buffer potential negative consequences of the punishment (Bauman & Friedman, 1998). Straus and Paschall (1998) also considered corporal punishment to be beneficial when administered within specific cultures. Acceptance of physical punishment varies across cultures and it may contribute to the variations in child outcomes across different groups because it affects whether punishment is used more instrumentally or emotionally, and how children emotionally respond to it (Gershoff, 2002; Larzelere, 2000). Larezelere’s (2000) pointed to 5 studies which present evidence of significantly differential effects of spanking by ethnicity. For instance, Deater-Deckard et al. (1996
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