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Psychology Professor's Findings on Corporal Punishment Decline Published in Pediatrics

Professor Rebecca Ryan, an expert on developmental psychology, revealed some promising findings on corporal punishment in American in last month’s Pediatrics. (Photo by Alex Hu/Georgetown College)

Georgetown College psychology professor Rebecca Ryan saw her research on corporal punishment in America published in the prestigious peer-reviewed journal Pediatrics last month.

Ryan’s paper, titled “Socioeconomic Gaps in Parents’ Discipline Strategies From 1988 to 2011,” finds that American parents employed spanking or other forms of corporal punishment for children at a rapidly declining rate over the 1988-2011 period.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics has strongly recommended against corporal punishment since 1998, the public debate over its place rages on — look no further than the discussion surrounding Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges in 2014. According to Ryan, the science is clear.

“Social science research that suggests spanking is linked to negative outcomes for children like delinquency, antisocial behavior, psychological problems, and alcohol and drug abuse,” Ryan said.

While Ryan believes there is a real difference between, say, spanking and outright child abuse, she cautions that the line between seemingly appropriate punishment and abusive behavior — which is linked with even higher likelihood of psychological problems — can be a thin one.

“One of the risks in using spanking or other forms of corporal punishment, like hitting children with objects like sticks and belts, is that it can be hard for a tired, stressed out parent to see the line between what they would consider productive physical discipline and harmful abuse,” she said.

Finally, even without considering the long-term psychological issues associated with corporal punishment, it’s worth noting that the approach simply doesn’t work.

“There’s little evidence that spanking or other forms of physical discipline are effective at reducing unwanted child behaviors, or encouraging children to internalize — to really believe in — parents’ rules,” Ryan said.

Although rates of corporal punishment remain higher among disadvantaged socioeconomic groups, Ryan’s research indicates there’s reason to be hopeful about the future. Parents across all groups haven’t abandoned child discipline, but they’ve learned to use safer and more effective methods. For example, more than half of parents surveyed indicated that they employed timeouts as an alternative response to child misbehavior — a huge step, considering that a minority of parents at all income and education levels did so as recently as 1988.

As for the reason behind the decline, it’s hard to say without further research, and Ryan acknowledges that demographic changes may play a role in this improvement — higher education levels and a later age of first childbirth, for example. But she believes it’s possible that advice from doctors and social scientists is beginning to hit home.

“There has been an increase in the popularity and awareness of alternatives to physical discipline like timeouts,” she said. “When given a choice, many parents might opt not to use physical discipline, and the past 20 years has seen an increase in choices for parents.”

In the future, Ryan hopes to investigate the reasons behind the decline in corporal punishment, hopefully isolating strategies that encourage further improvement. For now, she’s happy to see the survey numbers reflecting the longtime scientific consensus.

“At a time when public discussion has lamented the deep fissures in attitudes and beliefs across social and economic groups in the U.S., it’s heartening to find an issue on which Americans are becoming more unified even across socioeconomic lines,” Ryan said.

— Patrick Curran

Faculty Research