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Spanking May Be More Common Than Parents Admit

Small study 'eavesdropped' on family interactions with preschoolers


For the new study by Holden's team, participants were recruited using fliers distributed to English-speaking mothers of 2- to 5-year-old children at day care and Head Start centers in Dallas. Only 35 mothers who reported in a screening phone interview that they yelled in anger at least twice a week were included in the study.

Among parents, 79 percent of mothers worked, either full time (61 percent) or part time (18 percent), while 91 percent of fathers worked full time outside the home.

The mothers were given a digital voice recorder to wear on their upper arm. They were told to turn on the recorder when they returned home from work or at 5 p.m. and to turn it off when their child fell asleep. The recordings were taken for four to six consecutive days.

The rate of corporal punishment, such as spanking and slapping, exceeded estimates found in other studies that relied on parents reporting their behavior. While other studies discovered that American parents of 2-year-olds typically reported they spanked or slapped their child 18 times a year, Holden's research based on the audiotapes discovered such behavior occurred 18 times a week.

The study also showed that some of the children were punished for doing extremely minor things, such as turning pages in a book or sucking on their fingers.

Afifi noted that the study had limitations. Recruiting mothers with fliers means the participants were not representative of the general population (because they were self-selected), the number of families participating was small and the time frame of observation averaged only 13 hours per family.

What can parents do to discipline their children effectively? Afifi recommended that parents take a "time out" when they feel their anger escalating, and try to notice if their response to their child's misbehavior is making the situation worse. She also suggested that parents consider the child's age and developmental stage when making decisions about discipline and parenting.

Holden agreed. "There is no magic bullet, except for time, letting kids' prefrontal cortex [the judgment and decision-making area of the brain] develop. Children don't have the self-regulation ability adults have," he said. "They cannot control themselves. They cannot keep it together when they are fatigued."


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