Is spanking more prevalent – and more severe – than we admit? A pilot study of families finds that parents under-report how often they spank, and how much emotional restraint they demonstrate when spanking.
Eavesdropping on Family Life
Dr. George Holden, Professor of Psychology at Southern Methodist University, and colleagues used audio recordings of family life to understand how parents use corporal punishment (CP). Previous studies had relied on self-report.
Recording events has the benefit of catching respondents in “real time in their natural environments.” Holden and colleagues research helps fill in the gaps, noting that there “continues to be a paucity of information about what transpires before, during, and immediately after disciplinary incidents.”
While the researchers do not dispute that families might alter their behavior when they know they are being recorded, it was unlikely that parents were “reactive to the method and modified their typical behavior” since the corporal punishment was “recorded as soon as the very first night.”
Under-reporting of Spanking
Thirty-three mothers of two to five year old children wore recording devices for up to six days. Scientists then analyzed the recordings and documented 41 incidents of corporal punishment in 15 families. Researchers examined the recordings and coded what they heard.
While previous studies found that parents of two year olds reported spanking their children eighteen times annually, Holden’s research found that if the parents participating were representative, they would be “striking their children 18 times within one week!”
Reactive Corporal Punishment: Guidelines Ignored
According to the researchers, advocates of corporal punishment have outlined how to effectively use it. Suggested guidelines include using CP infrequently, selectively using CP for serious misbehavior, using CP as the last resort, using it when parents are calm, striking the child no more than twice, and ensuring that CP is painful.
Dr. Holden notes that these suggestions were routinely violated in the study. For instance, the average wait between misbehavior and spanking was less than thirty seconds. Dr. Holden’s research uniquely uncovered this quick reaction time. He explained in his interview with Decoded Science, “CP is typically used in a emotional, reactive way, rather than a thoughtful, instrumental way. No other researcher has ever reported that statistic because this approach has never before been done to study CP.”
Other guidelines were also ignored. In half of the incidents, parents were rated as sounding angry. Common misbehaviors were small infractions, such as ignoring a parent’s instruction. Most parents did, however, refrain from striking their child more than twice.
Spanking: A Problematic Practice
Despite all the spanking, misbehavior continued. The researchers found that CP “is that it is not effective in terminating misbehavior over as short a time period as 10 minutes.”
In the Canadian Medical Journal, Dr. Joan Durrant’s meta-analysis of twenty years of research on physical punishment concluded “no study has found physical punishment to have a long-term positive effect, and most studies have found negative effects.” Holden’s research is further proof of the ineffectiveness of CP.
In her summary 20 years of research on spanking, Dr. Joan Durrant reported an “increasing number of countries are abolishing the use of physical punishment to better protect children and to shift parents’ focus from punishment to guidance and effective discipline.” Dr. Holden would like to see that movement continue.
Parenting, Discipline, and Physical Punishment
In his interview with Decoded Science, Holden explained his position, “After studying parenting for more than 30 years, I’m convinced that CP is a problematic practice that undermines good parent-child relationships and children’s well-being. So my hope is that more and more people will recognize that and join the movement to end CP of children both in schools and in homes.”
Dr. Holden encourages parents to practice positive discipline, pointing to the materials offered online by the U.S. Alliance to Stop the Hitting of Children.