Study Finds Drop in Mothers Physically Disciplining Children

Mothers in the U.S. are less likely to report spanking their children today than they were several decades ago, while nonphysical discipline methods like time-outs have become more prevalent, finds a new study by researchers at NYU Steinhardt, Georgetown University, and the University of Chicago. The study is published in the December issue of the journal Pediatrics.

“We were encouraged to see that physically disciplining children has become much less popular, while using methods like time-outs or talking with children are now the tools that a majority of parents use, “ said Kathleen Ziol-Guest, research associate professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at NYU Steinhardt and one of the study’s authors.

In 1998, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement urging against the use of physical discipline. However, research has shown that discipline strategies differ by family background (such as parents’ education and income), with families of lower socioeconomic status more likely to spank their children or use other forms of physical punishment.

The Pediatrics study looked at data from four large national studies conducted between 1988 and 2011. Each asked how often a kindergarten-aged child was spanked in the past week and what the parents would do if the child misbehaved, with physical discipline, time-out, and talking to child as possible responses.

The findings show that parents’ use of physical punishment has declined substantially across all socioeconomic groups. The proportion of median-income mothers who endorse physical discipline decreased from 46 to 21 percent over time. However, nearly a third of mothers with the lowest incomes still endorse physically disciplining kids, with almost a quarter doing so in the last week.

“The results remind us that education is still needed, especially in lower socioeconomic families, to further reduce reliance on physical punishment and increase use of nonphysical discipline techniques, such as time-outs,” Ziol-Guest said.

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