About 20% of parents polled in a new survey admit to using physical punishment such as spanking and swatting to discipline their children—even though most say they don’t feel right doing it and they don’t believe it works.
Despite clear guidance from pediatric groups against spanking or hitting a child for any reason, it remains a common form of punishment for some parents, along with other forms of physical discipline. However, parents want to do better, according to the report from the nonprofit parent education group Zero To Three based in Washington, DC, and they want pediatricians to help.
“Our survey found that parents overwhelmingly believe that good parenting can be learned. This is great news for pediatricians: Parents want to be the best mother or father they can be for their young child. At the same time, parents are also profoundly influenced by their own experiences as a child—both positive and negative,” says Rebecca Parlakian, senior director of programs at Zero To Three. “Creating opportunities for parents to share their own experiences of parenting and of being parented can be difficult, but it is also a courageous step toward building strong families. Making these discussions a part of the well-child visit provides a critical support to parents as well as nurtures young children’s healthy development.”
Zero To Three’s study was conducted in 2 phases consisting of 10 in-depth discussion groups in Dallas and Chicago for Phase 1, and a nationally representative 50-question survey sent to more than 2000 parents for Phase 2. Researchers found that no matter what their background, parents mostly share the same attitudes, aspirations, and challenges across socioeconomic status, race, education level, and parenting role.
Eighty percent of the parents polled believe they are good parents, and 9 out of 10 say they want to keep working to do even better. Parents also feel torn in their roles, with 91% describing parenthood as their greatest joy and 73% also describing it as their greatest challenge.
One of the biggest challenges cited across the study participants was discipline, and figuring out the best ways to manage behavior, effectively discipline, and keep patience. In fact, across income groups, this goal was nearly identical, with 58% of parents in the low-income group and 57% of parents in the high-income group saying that they wished they could be more patient with their child. The goal was similar across races and ethnicities as well, although more moms than dads cite patience as a goal.
Parents do want to learn, however, with 62% of fathers and 46% of mothers saying they would like guidance on how to be better parents.
Part of the problem, according to Zero To Three, is that many parents don’t fully understand how their child develops.
Many parents underestimate how early children can be affected by what goes on around them, and half the parents polled believe that the quality of parents’ care doesn’t begin to have long-term effects on their child until after they are aged 6 months, when in fact their care has a big impact on their child from birth. Four of 10 parents also believe that children don’t feel sad or fearful until they are aged 1 year or older, although these feelings actually begin around age 3 to 5 months.
Parents also have a knowledge deficit when it comes to understanding their child’s capabilities, and this could lead to discipline problems.
“Our survey found that many parents significantly overestimate their children’s ability for self-control, which can lead to punitive versus supportive responses when children are struggling. Pediatricians serve an important role by sharing information about developmental milestones and what it means for children’s behavior. For example—sharing or the ability of children to stop themselves from doing something (even though they have been told ‘no’) doesn’t happen consistently before age 4,” says Claire Lerner, senior parenting advisor at Zero To Three. “Helping parents understand typical child behavior makes them feel confident and prepared. It also reduces frustration and anger and builds empathy, all which promotes children’s healthy development because parents’ expectations are better aligned with children’s capacities. Further, parents are more likely to take a loving approach to guiding their children’s behavior, versus a harsh, shaming, and ultimately ineffective approach.”
Forty-three percent of the parents polled believe that children are capable of sharing before age 2 years, however, this skill doesn’t develop until ages 3 years or 4 years. Almost 40% believe that children aged younger than 2 years have enough impulse control to resist temptations that are forbidden to them, and 56% believe children aged younger than 3 years have those abilities. However, children don’t really master impulse control until closer to age 4 years.
“This is especially important because the way that parents interpret the meaning of a child’s behavior can influence the sensitivity of their responses—including when and how they discipline,” according to the report. “If a parent thinks a child is capable of greater self-control than he actually is, and in reality that ability is still 6 months away, it can lead to a punitive rather than supportive response.”
Parents view discipline as a multimodal tool, with 68% saying they use discipline to nurture their children, and 68% saying they use it to stop bad behavior. Additionally, 71% say discipline is necessary to teach good behavior, and 65% say they discipline their children to protect them.
Regardless of their reasons for disciplining their children, 75% of parents say they feel it is their duty, and more than half of parents say finding the best ways to discipline is a struggle and that managing their child when they misbehave is one of the biggest parenting challenges.
Whereas many parents have turned to nonphysical methods for discipline, the survey found that 21% still spank; 26% “pop or swat” their children; and 17% hit their children with an object such as a belt or paddle. However even parents that use spanking don’t really believe it works, according to the survey, with 30% of parents admitting that they spank their children even though they “don’t feel okay about it.” Among parents who say they spank their children frequently—several times a week—77% say it’s not the most effective way to discipline.
So why do parents spank their kids? Many of the parents polled—90%—cite their own experiences as children or the advice of their parents as reasons for the way they parent their own children. Yet parents are looking to make changes.
Six of 10 parents polled say what they learned from their parents is useful, but 37% say they spank less than their parents did, and 29% and 28%, respectively, say they “pop or swat” and hit with an object less than their parents did. Forty-one percent say they explain expectations and consequences more than their parents did, and 40% to 60% rely on time-outs, distraction, acting as a good role model, verbal warnings, setting limits, and negative reinforcement for discipline.
Nearly 60% of parents polled say they wish they knew more about effective ways to discipline their child, and 53% say they are willing to learn about discipline strategies. The volume of resources on discipline is overwhelming, however, and 58% of parents say there is so much advice available that they don’t know where to start or whom to trust.
More than half the parents polled say they would value a website or blog created jointly by child development experts, but 63% of parents say they are skeptical of generalized parenting advice from sources that don’t know their child or specific situation.
Pediatricians are an obvious source, and a top-ranked source—also cited as helpful—by parents in the poll, falling second only to using the way parents themselves were raised as reference.
“Parents are overwhelmed by information and, at the same time, aren’t sure who to trust when it comes to parenting information. Pediatricians are extremely well-positioned to provide parents with the support and guidance they are looking for, as they are a trusted resource and actually have the chance to get to know children as individuals,” says Lerner.
“By creating opportunities for families to talk through child-rearing challenges, like effective discipline strategies, pediatricians can support positive parenting practices and promote children’s healthy development,” Lerner says. “How pediatricians go about these discussions is very important; parents want to be partners in this process and to have their ideas heard and their feelings validated.”