The prevalence of corporal punishment is high in the United States despite a 1998 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement urging against its use. The current study tests whether the socioeconomic difference in its use by parents has changed over the past quarter century. It goes on to test whether socioeconomic differences in the use of nonphysical discipline have also changed over time.
Data are drawn from 4 national studies conducted between 1988 and 2011. Each asked how often a kindergarten-aged child was spanked in the past week and what the parents would do if the child misbehaved, with physical discipline, time-out, and talking to child as possible responses. We use regression models to estimate parents’ responses to these questions at the 90th, 50th, and 10th percentiles of the income and education distributions and t tests to compare estimates across cohorts.
The proportion of mothers at the 50th income-percentile who endorse physical discipline decreased from 46% to 21% over time. Gaps between the 90th and 10th income-percentiles were stable at 11 and 18 percentage points in 1988 and 2011. The percentage of mothers at the 10th income-percentile endorsing time-outs increased from 51% to 71%, and the 90/10 income gap decreased from 23 to 14 percentage points between 1998 and 2011.
Decline in popular support for physical discipline reflects real changes in parents’ discipline strategies. These changes have occurred at all socioeconomic levels, producing for some behaviors a significant reduction in socioeconomic differences.
Conceptual gaps about the adequate child’s environment?
Ryan et al’s, analysing 4 national studies, showed significant changes in parents' discipline strategies from 1988 to 2011, physical discipline (spanking) decreasing while nonphysical discipline (time-out) increased.(1) Could the results of these studies be good news ?
First, about the methodology of these studies, the magnitude of the methods (eg. light spanking, long time out) used for discipline was not assessed. Moreover data from a declarative basis are poorly reliable, because responses can be culturally induced. Last, considering the strategy “talk to child has a potentially ambiguous” meaning seems a hardly acceptable understatement about a major bias.(1)
Second, about the prerequisites, no robust evidence (randomized clinical trial with long term outcome on relevant endpoints or well-designed observational studies accounting for cofounding factors) that light spanking could be deleterious and that time out could be a panacea. Time out seems a semantic distortion for punishment by social exclusion. At least, time out must be linked with "time in" because children need reinforcement through positive experiences. The Australian Association for Infant Mental Health key messages about time-out are : a) not be used for children under three years of age; b) use relationship time in to help young children; c) respond to children’s feelings and when appropriate helping them to learn what to do.
Child development, as child poverty, gets too little attention. Too few concerns in the society about a child’s environment providing for the basic needs of love, emotional and physical security, room to explore and encouragement. Although the challenge is huge, the priorities are simple for clinicians as domestic violence (frequency and magnitude) is first about smoking and alcohol, not to mention the case of pregnancy.(2-4)
Exploring parents' discipline strategies without concern for alcohol use is not seeing the wood for the trees. “Pediatricians should interview their patients regularly about alcohol use within the family.”(4)
1 Ryan RM, Kalil A, Ziol-Guest KM, Padilla C. Socioeconomic gaps in parents' discipline strategies from 1988 to 2011. Pediatrics 2016;138:e20160720.
2 Weitzman M, Gortmaker S, Sobol A. Maternal smoking and behavior problems of children. Pediatrics 1992;90:342-9.
3 Braillon A, Bewley S, Dubois G. Secondhand smoke is the most frequent cause of child maltreatment. Eur J Pediatr 2010;169:1167.
4 American Academy of Pediatrics: Committee on Substance Abuse. Alcohol use and abuse: a pediatric concern. Pediatrics 2001;108:185-9.