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Inhibitory Control and Harsh Discipline as Predictors of Externalizing Problems in Young Children: A Comparative Study of US, Chinese, and Japanese Preschoolers

Harsh discipline contributed to child behavior problems.

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  • N: 120
  • Subject Ages: 4 years
  • Location: United States; China; Japan
  • SES: Various
  • Eligibility: Full-time preschools at both university and community samples in each location
  • Additional:
    • Beijing, China
      • Only two of the children (a pair of twins) were reported to have siblings
      • Parental education ranged from middle school to   graduate-level training for both mothers and fathers
    • U.S. sample was collected in and around Ann Arbor, Michigan
      • Over half had one or more siblings
      • Parental education ranged from high school to graduate-level training for both mothers and fathers
    • Tokyo, Japan
      • Over half of the Japanese children had at least one sibling and 11 of the children had two siblings
      • Most parents reported being married
      • Parental education ranged from middle school to graduate-level training for both mothers and fathers
    • Some demographic characteristics differed significantly between countries
      • Chinese parents were slightly younger than those in Japan
      • Maternal education was significantly greater in the United States than in Japan or China
      • There were no significant cross-national differences in paternal education
      • Relatively few Japanese mothers were employed
      • U.S. parents reported significantly higher levels of divorce or separation than those in the other two countries


  1. Low levels of child inhibitory control would be associated with elevated levels of child externalizing problems in all three cultures.
  2. Indices of parental harsh physical and emotional discipline would be associated with elevated externalizing scores in U.S. preschoolers, and it would be determined whether this association would generalize to Chinese and Japanese preschoolers.
  3. The cross-cultural validity of integrative models would determine whether associations between parenting risk, child self-regulation difficulties and child externalizing combined in ways that reflected additive, interactional or mediational mechanisms.
  4. Relationships between children’s inhibitory control capabilities and early externalizing problems would be moderated by child gender within each country.

Variables Measured, Instruments Used

  • Child inhibitory control in the laboratory - composite of three Stroop-like switching tasks commonly used with  preschoolers: the Grass/Snow Task, Luria’s Hand Game and the Day/Night Stroop Task
  • Maternal rating of inhibitory control - abbreviated version of Rothbart’s Child Behavior Questionnaire (CBQ; Ahadi, et al., 1993)
  • Nonverbal intelligence - the Block Design subscale of the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence, revised (WPPSI-R; Wechsler, 1989)
  • Child externalizing problems - the Child Behavior Checklist/1.5-5
  • Parenting behavior - Socialization of Moral Affect questionnaire-Preschool Parent (SOMA-PP; Denham, et al., 1997)

Design—Correlational, cross-cultural



  1. Both child inhibitory control and maternal harsh discipline made significant contributions to child externalizing problems in all three countries.
  2. Across countries, child inhibitory control and maternal harsh discipline made significant independent contributions to early externalizing problems, suggesting an additive model of association.
  3. Our findings supported the cross-cultural generalizability of child inhibitory control and parental harsh punishment as key contributors to disruptive behavior in young children.


  • Participants primarily were drawn from two-parent, middle-class families; thus, the findings may not generalize to children in other family constellations or families experiencing severe economic hardship.
  • Samples were drawn from typically developing preschoolers, limiting generalizability to clinically referred populations of young children.
  • The mediation model was based on theoretical evidence that supported the direction of effects from parenting behavior to child self-regulation. However, impulsive, disruptive child behavior often elicits upper limit controls and negative affect from parents (Sameroff, 2009). Empirical studies have shown that the early development of disruptive behavior reflects reciprocal relations between child and parent behaviors (e.g., Combs-Ronto, et al., 2009; Scaramella & Leve, 2004). Thus, the findings should not be used to draw causal inferences concerning the directionality of parent-child influences.
  • Maternal report: Although laboratory measures of child inhibitory control were included, parenting behaviors and child externalizing problems were evaluated using maternal report. Incorporating other sources of information may prevent possible informant bias as well as provide a more detailed and comprehensive understanding of mothers’ early contributions to children’s disruptive behavior. Furthermore, investigating fathers’ roles in these relations may lead to a richer pattern of findings (e.g., see Chang, et al., 2003).
  • Over 50 different risk factors have been related to the development of child externalizing problems (Dodge & Pettit, 2003).