Study suggests 'smacking children doesn't work'

Behind the Headlines

Friday May 2 2014

Most childcare experts would argue smacking is counterproductive

Almost half of the families physically punished children

"Parents smack their children more than they admit – and it DOESN'T improve behaviour,” the Mail Online reports.

The news is based on a study that examined the use of “corporal punishment” by 33 families in the US, with children aged between two and five years old. It used audio recordings to verify the use of corporal punishment, rather than just relying on parents’ own reports, which researchers believed would be underestimated.

Overall, almost half of the families studied carried out corporal punishment. These actions were not all consistent with so-called US “best practice guidelines” about how corporal punishment should be used. These guidelines say, for example, that corporal punishment should be reserved for serious misconduct and not given in anger. The researchers found that half of parents were angry when they physically punished their child.

In about three-quarters of incidents, the child engaged in the same or another misbehaviour within the next 10 minutes – suggesting that the punishment wasn't successful.

The group studied was small, and selected due to the mothers reporting that they “yelled in anger at least twice a week”. This may not be representative of the wider population, meaning that few conclusions can be drawn from this study.


Smacking and the law

The 2004 Children Act makes it illegal for a parent or carer to smack a child, except where this amounts to “reasonable punishment”. Unfortunately, “reasonable punishment” is not defined clearly in law. This leads many to believe that it is legal to smack a child, as long as it is not hard enough to leave a mark, or using an implement such as a belt. However, many would argue that physically assaulting a child – even if it is intended to improve their behaviour – is a form of abuse.


There are numerous methods you can use to deal with difficult behaviour in a child without resorting to physical violence, such as trying to understand the causes of their bad behaviour – these causes could range from tiredness to a lack of understanding. Read more about dealing with a child's difficult behaviour.

Where did the story come from?

The study was carried out by researchers from Southern Methodist University in the US and was supported by a grant from the Timberlawn Psychiatric Research Foundation.

The study was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Psychology.

The Mail Online’s coverage has not considered the important limitations of this very small study of a select group of people. However, it is hard to disagree with the argument that regularly smacking children in anger is not an ideal way of encouraging children to behave. Similarly, smacking may plant the idea in a child’s mind that physical violence is acceptable.


What kind of research was this?

This was a pilot observational study, which collected self-reports and audio recordings from 33 US mothers for up to six evenings. The aim was to observe the number of incidents of corporal punishment on children.

The researchers say that most studies assess the use of corporal punishment based on self-reports by parents or children. However, this has various limitations, including inaccurate recall, people giving socially desirable rather than accurate responses and limitations to the questions that can feasibly be asked. Therefore, the researchers aimed to test the use of audio recordings as an alternative assessment method.

This pilot study can only provide data on the small, selected group assessed. The act of recording a person’s behaviour may affect what they actually do, especially if they are only assessed for a short period of time.


What did the research involve?

The research included 33 mothers who had audio recorded in their homes, to examine their use of corporal punishment and its immediate effect on their young children.

These incidents were then evaluated against “best practice” guideline recommendations written by advocates of corporal punishment. The researchers said they identified seven guidelines from five difference sources, which specified that corporal punishment:

  • should be used infrequently
  • should be used selectively
  • should be used for serious misbehaviour, such as aggression
  • should be used as a last resort
  • should be administered calmly, not in anger
  • should consist of no more than two hits
  • should be painful
  • should only be used on the buttocks

Participants were mothers of children aged between two and five years of age, who volunteered to take part. They were recruited through daycare and Head Start centres in a large, unnamed, south-western US city, and completed a phone screening interview. Of the 56 potential mothers, only those who reported that they “yelled in anger at least twice a week” were included. The final sample of 33 mothers had an average age of 34. 60% were of white ethnicity and 60% worked full time outside the home. The average age of the children was 46 months, and 13 of the children were girls.

Mothers were visited at their home and given a digital recorder to wear on their arm. They were asked to turn this on at 5pm each evening and turn it off once their child was asleep. The first 10 participants were monitored on four consecutive days, and the other 23 were monitored on six consecutive days. The mothers were paid for their participation.

When measuring whether corporal punishment incidents had taken place, the researchers say that:

  • for 51% of incidents, the sound of the child being slapped or spanked was clearly discernible and supported by contextual cues, such as warnings of or justifications for the hit
  • for 44% of incidents, the sound was ambiguous, but the contextual cues (mother’s warning, child’s cries) provided supporting evidence
  • in two cases (5%), there was no audible sound of punishment, but clear explicit contextual information, such as the child pleading “Stop hitting me”.

These incidents were analysed in detail against the “guidelines”, to assess whether corporal punishment was used infrequently, only for serious behaviours or as a last resort. To gauge effectiveness, they coded whether the child misbehaved during the 10 minutes that followed the punishment.

The researches then assessed how audio recorded corporal punishment incidents corresponded with the parents’ self-reported use of corporal punishment on the Parental Responses to Child Misbehaviour (PRCM) and Parenting Styles and Dimensions Questionnaire (PSDQ).


What were the basic results?

The researchers recorded a total of 41 corporal punishment “incidents” in 15 out of the 33 (45%) families. Among these 15 families, the 41 incidents were widely distributed (6 families committed only 1 incident each and 1 family committed 10 incidents). 18 children (11 boys) received corporal punishment. 12 mothers accounted for 32 incidents, 5 fathers for 7 incidents and 1 grandmother for 2 incidents.

When comparing with the guidelines:

  • Infrequent use: average rate was about 1 event per 5 hours (0.22 events per hour) of recording
  • Selective use: for 40 of 41 incidents, the child’s misdeed could be identified, with the child not doing what they were told the cause of 90% of events
  • Use as a last resort: parents tried on average one disciplinary response before punishing (usually shouting a command like “Stop it!”)
  • Not used in anger: parental anger was evident in 49% of incidents
  • No more than 2 hits: only 1 hit was audible in 83% of incidents
  • Should be painful: the researchers rated the child distress rating as moderate in almost half of cases (48.8%), followed by minimal (29.3%) and a strong negative reaction (9.8%). No audible child reaction was heard in 12.2% of the incidents.

In about three-quarters of incidents (30 of 41, 73%), the children engaged in the same or another misbehaviour within the next 10 minutes.

The questionnaire self-reports were generally found to correspond well with the audio recordings. 17 mothers reported they did not use corporal punishment (or did so less than once a week) and were not heard to use it, and 9 mothers who reported they did use corporal punishment, used it. However, 4 mothers said they used corporal punishment but were not heard to, and 2 mothers reported they did not use corporal punishment, but were heard to use it.


How did the researchers interpret the results?

The researchers say that their results should be viewed as preliminary, due to the small sample of families and the even smaller number of families who used corporal punishment within this sample. The researchers say the results suggest that among the mothers who were hitting, corporal punishment occurred at a much higher rate than the literature (accumulated reports from research) indicates.

The researchers further suggest that “audio recording naturally occurring momentary processes in the family is a viable method for collecting new data to address important questions about family interactions”.



Overall, few conclusions can be drawn from this very small pilot study. The study has many limitations:

  • This was a very select sample of only 33 US mothers of young children, all of whom were recruited on the basis that they “yelled in anger at least twice a week”. The small sample and selected nature of the group means the findings are unlikely to be representative of the wider population.
  • The mothers (and presumably the rest of the family) knew they were being audio recorded, so this may have influenced their disciplinary practices and self-reporting of incidents.
  • The study was only assessing over a short period of four to six consecutive nights, which may not represent longer-term behaviours, or behaviours over the rest of the day.
  • The use of corporal punishment was assessed against corporal punishment “best practice guidelines”. These guidelines have not been assessed here, and it is not clear whether they were only from the US or other countries, on what they were based, or how they are viewed or accepted in the US, or elsewhere.

The results of this very small and select US study contributes little evidence on the use or effectiveness of corporal punishment for children in this country. However, it does serve to stimulate public debate about the validity and morality of being physically violent to children as a way of trying to improve their behaviour.

Analysis by Bazian. Edited by NHS ChoicesFollow Behind the Headlines on TwitterJoin the Healthy Evidence forum.

Analysis by Bazian

Edited by NHS Choices

Links to the headlines

Parents smack their children more than they admit - and it DOESN'T improve behaviour. Mail Online,  May 1 2014

Links to the science

Holden GW, Williamson PA, Holland GWO. Eavesdropping on the family: A pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home. Journal of Family Psychology. Published online April 14 2014


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