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Spanking Young Children Declines Overall But Persists In Poorer Households

He's more likely to get a timeout than a spanking.
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He's more likely to get a timeout than a spanking.

The share of U.S. mothers who spank their young children or endorse physical discipline has declined significantly over the past two and a half decades, according to an analysis of four national surveys.

The findings, out Monday in the journal Pediatrics, came from an analysis of data from 1988 to 2011. Researcher found that 21 percent of median-income mothers of kindergarten-aged children endorsed physical discipline at the end of that period — down from 46 percent at the start.

"There's been a substantial decrease in the share of parents who are reporting having spanked their child in the last week," says Rebecca Ryan, a psychologist at Georgetown University who led the analysis. "And there's a been substantial decrease in the share of parents who say they would spank or hit their child in response to misbehavior."

In a surprise, the drop in spanking occurred regardless of family income. "We're the first to report that across all income levels there's been this big reduction," Ryan says.

For example, about 40 percent of the most affluent parents reported they would use physical punishment in 1988. In 2011, that dropped to 12 percent. Among the poorest mothers, about half of parents endorsed physical punishment in 1988, compared to 30 percent in 2011.

"In could be that parents are realizing that physical discipline may be less effective than some of the alternatives," Ryan says.

In fact, the proportion of mothers endorsing nonphysical forms of discipline, such as timeouts, increased during the same period, the researchers found.

In 1988, about half of the most affluent parents said they would use timeouts. That increased to 85 percent in 2011. Among the poorest mothers, only 45 percent said they would use time-out in 1988. That rose to 71 percent by 2011.

"These are really big increases," Ryan says. "The majority of parents now are reporting that they are using alternatives to physical discipline like timeouts where it was the minority in 1988."

The finding are being welcomed by researchers.

"I think it's good news for the families of America," says Heidi Feldman, a developmental pediatrician at Stanford University. She wrote a commentaryaccompanying the study.

Research has shown that nonphysical forms of discipline are more effective, she says. "Nonphysical forms of discipline can actually teach children what they need to understand to be better children and students and citizens eventually," she says.

In contrast, physical discipline like spanking encourages children to be violent, she says. But Feldman noted spanking still remains too common, especially among the lower-income parents.

Ryan acknowledged that one possible shortcoming of her study is that it relies on parents admitting that they spank their children. But she noted that reports of child abuse also fell during this period, making her more confident in the findings.

"Spanking is not the same as physical abuse, but the reduction in official physical abuse reports suggests the changes in physical discipline endorsement reported here reflect changes in actual behavior," she wrote in an email.

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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