Parents in the United States are significantly less likely to use spanking to discipline their children than their peers of 25 years ago, according to a University of Minnesota study published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.
The study reports that the proportion of parents with children aged 2 to 12 years old who say they spank their child dropped from 50 percent in 1993 to 35 percent in 2017. Fathers and mothers are both spanking less. The share of men who say they use spanking as punishment fell from 52 percent to 36 percent during the study period, while the share of women dropped from 48 percent to 35 percent.
Spanking is also considerably less common among parents with a child aged 2 to 4 years old — the group that previous research has shown is most likely to use it. In 1993, 60 percent of parents with preschoolers said they spanked their child. By 2017, that figure had decreased to 39 percent.
The study’s findings are based on national data collected from the Monitoring the Future study, an ongoing study by the University of Michigan that has been looking at the behaviors, attitudes and values of Americans from adolescence through adulthood. Participants are periodically surveyed on a variety of topics. All of the 16,390 people (17 cohorts of graduating high school seniors from 1976-2000) whose data was used in the U of M study were 35 years old and had children between the ages of 2 and 12 when they were asked, “How often do you spank your children?”
Needed: more parental support
The overall downward trend in spanking reported in the current study is encouraging, but the percentage of parents who resort to corporal punishment to discipline their children is still too high. Studies have repeatedly associated spanking with negative outcomes for children — ones similar to those in children who experience physical abuse.
In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics (APA), which represents 67,000 pediatricians across the U.S., updated its policy statement on corporal punishment. The new policy declares unequivocally that parents should not use spanking or any other form of corporal punishment — defined as “non-injurious, open-handed hitting with the intention of modifying child behavior” — on children.
The APA also warns parents against verbal abuse — language that “belittles, humiliates, denigrates, scapegoats, threatens, scares, or ridicules the child.”
The findings from the new study underscore the need to develop better supports for parents so that they can be more effective at achieving the goals they have for their child’s behavior, says Christopher Mehus, one of the study’s authors and a researcher at the U of M’s Institute for Translational Research in Children’s Mental Health.
“Parenting is one of the hardest and most complicated things we do and, yet, we receive no education or support for this most-difficult job,” he wrote in an e-mail exchange with MinnPost. “Parents are their child’s best teacher and they deserve to be equipped as such.”
What parents can do
Mehus encourages parents to focus on the behavior they want their child to exhibit (what they want their child to do) rather than on the behavior they want them to change.
“That allows us to brainstorm ways to teach and reinforce that new behavior (e.g., role-playing with the child, catching and praising the new behavior, sticker charts),” he explained. “If we’ve done the first step, then we can think about addressing misbehavior.”
“Consequences (e.g., timeouts, privilege loss, chores) should be short, immediate, delivered consistently, and delivered calmly,” he added. “When parents see success with alternative or new strategies, they use them.”
Here are some tips from the APA on the most effective ways to teach your child to manage their behavior and keep them from harm:
- Show and tell. Teach children right from wrong with calm words and actions. Model behaviors you would like to see in your children.
- Set limits. Have clear and consistent rules your children can follow. Be sure to explain these rules in age-appropriate terms they can understand.
- Give consequences. Calmly and firmly explain the consequences if they don’t behave. For example, tell her that if she does not pick up her toys, you will put them away for the rest of the day. Be prepared to follow through right away. Don’t give in by giving them back after a few minutes. But remember, never take away something your child truly needs, such as a meal.
- Hear them out. Listening is important. Let your child finish the story before helping solve the problem. Watch for times when misbehavior has a pattern, like if your child is feeling jealous. Talk with your child about this rather than just giving consequences.
- Give them your attention. The most powerful tool for effective discipline is attention—to reinforce good behaviors and discourage others. Remember, all children want their parent’s attention.
- Catch them being good. Children need to know when they do something bad — and when they do something good. Notice good behavior and point it out, praising success and good tries. Be specific (for example, “Wow, you did a good job putting that toy away!”).
- Know when not to respond. As long as your child isn’t doing something dangerous and gets plenty of attention for good behavior, ignoring bad behavior can be an effective way of stopping it. Ignoring bad behavior can also teach children natural consequences of their actions. For example, if your child keeps dropping her cookies on purpose, she will soon have no more cookies left to eat. If she throws and breaks her toy, she will not be able to play with it. It will not be long before she learns not to drop her cookies and to play carefully with her toys.
- Be prepared for trouble. Plan ahead for situations when your child might have trouble behaving. Prepare them for upcoming activities and how you want them to behave.
- Redirect bad behavior. Sometimes children misbehave because they are bored or don’t know any better. Find something else for your child to do.
- Call a time-out. A time-out can be especially useful when a specific rule is broken. This discipline tool works best by warning children they will get a time out if they don’t stop, reminding them what they did wrong in as few words ― and with as little emotion ― as possible, and removing them from the situation for a pre-set length of time (1 minute per year of age is a good rule of thumb). With children who are at least 3 years old, you can try letting their children lead their own time-out instead of setting a timer. You can just say, “Go to time out and come back when you feel ready and in control.” This strategy, which can help the child learn and practice self-management skills, also works well for older children and teens.
FMI: The study, which was published as a research letter, can be found on the JAMA Pediatrics website, although the full paper is behind a paywall.