In the wake of the recent video showing a Texas judge repeatedly belt-whipping his teen daughter and the recent deaths of young adoptees in Tennessee beaten with flexible tubing as prescribed by a best-selling parenting book, it’s worth reviewing how mainstream Americans discipline children. The most recent national data from the National Institutes of Mental Health, obtained by a Gallup telephone poll, was encouraging in some respects. Almost every parent regularly tries to reason with a wayward child, and nearly three-quarters redirect misbehaving kids into another activity or use time-outs.
Still, many also hit children regularly. Over the phone to a stranger, roughly half of all respondents admitted to “spanking on the bottom with a bare hand;” one in five hit children “with a belt, a hairbrush, a stick, or some other hard object;” and 5 percent slapped children in the face—on average, about once per month. About 1 percent of parents said they “beat up” their child, “threw or knocked down” a child, and “hit with a fist or kicked hard,” repeating this treatment about once every three months. (Though toddlers got the most spankings, one-fifth of teenagers continued to be hit.) In a separate 2009 study, 14 percent of mothers admitted they spanked infants under 1 year of age.
Primary care physicians tacitly approve of corporal punishment. According to well-designed surveys, 70 percent of family physicians and 60 percent of pediatricians think “striking of the child’s buttocks or hand with an open hand … leaving no mark except transient redness” is fine. In a hypothetical scenario of an 8-year-old who refuses to go to bed at the usual time, for example, one in five family physicians think the child should be spanked. Interestingly, even 40 percent of academic child abuse specialists think “spanking is appropriate sometimes.” A key committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics debated spanking for more than 10 years before they decided not to condemn it categorically. (Daniel Armstrong, the director of the Mailman Center for Child Development in Miami and the AAP policy’s main writer, told me “there was a clash of beliefs” and in the end, the committee condemned hitting kids with objects and in the face, but felt whacks on the buttocks were OK.)
Remarkably, however, a powerful trend toward abandoning corporal punishment is already under way. There has been a dramatic reduction in its use over the past two generations—an unprecedented change in a pattern that likely had been fixed for millennia. In the United States, for example, 94 percent of parents endorsed hitting kids in 1968, but only one-half approved by 1999. Similar decreases occurred in countries as diverse as Austria, Sweden, Kuwait, Germany, and New Zealand. (In Sweden, the drop preceded the law against hitting kids.)
Murray Straus, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire who has devoted his career to studying corporal punishment, believes the decrease is “part of the long term civilizing process of society,” in which societal violence in all forms has dropped over the last centuries. When I push him to explain why the reduction in corporal punishment is so recent, he points to increasing levels of education. (With some exceptions, studies show that educated and wealthier families hit kids less.) But what does that mean? In other words, just what changed in these households to lead parents to raise children without corporal punishment?
Theories abound. Several experts with whom I spoke pointed to tougher laws on child abuse (that is, fear of prosecution), greater use of no-spanking day-care centers and nannies by two profession couples, or beliefs that spanking causes long-term psychological harm. But these don’t necessarily support the personal experience of many parents. At my medical center, for example, I recently interviewed dozens of pediatricians and subspecialists about their own experience, and many recalled being whipped with belts, slapped in the face, or hit in other ways as children. (I once went to preschool with a bruised cheek from being hit.) Yet not a single one hit his or her own children today as a routine method of discipline. None of the above explanations seemed on target to them. Instead, they chose not to spank for an entirely practical reason: They had, they said, learned more effective ways of disciplining children.