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Spanking May Be More Common Than Parents Admit

Small study 'eavesdropped' on family interactions with preschoolers
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"It doesn't work. But more than that, it can result in behavioral problems like aggression, or anxiety and depression," he said.

Nationwide, 70 percent to 90 percent of parents hit or slap their children, Holden said. Yet spanking is not recommended by most experts in child psychology.

Another expert said that evidence does not support spanking.

"Based on 20 years of research on physical punishment, it is recommended that it should not be used on children of any age," said Tracie Afifi, an associate professor in the department of community health sciences at the University of Manitoba, in Winnipeg, Canada.

In a study published in Pediatrics in 2012, Afifi found that spanking or slapping children may increase the odds they will develop mental health issues into adulthood.

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.

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