Is a 12-month-old too young to be disciplined?

August 1, 2006

A survey of mothers, beginning when their child was 6 months old and continuing every six months until the child was 4 years, shows that many discipline their offspring by the time they are 12 months old, relying on a variety of techniques. Using several types of questionnaires, the study of more than 100 mothers determined if, how, and how often mothers disciplined their child and gauged their attitudes about spanking.

Study participants lived in a Southwestern metropolitan area. The mothers' median age was 31.4 years when their child, about half of whom were male, were born. Most women were part of a two-parent family; the range of income in those families was wide; and 79% of mothers had a college degree.

By the time their infant was 12 months old, mothers reported engaging in a variety of disciplinary techniques for undesirable behavior. Diversion was most common-indeed, all participants reported using it. Other common techniques included reasoning (85%), ignoring (64%), and negotiating (50%). By this age, two forms of physical punishment had emerged: slapping the child's hand (21%) and spanking (14%). More than one third of mothers also reporting yelling at their child.

Conversely, use of diversion declined with a child's age. By the time a child was 3 years old, yelling and time-outs were almost as popular as reasoning; by the time the child was 36 months old, 91% of mothers used withdrawal of privileges. Overall, however, parents seemed to decide early on which discipline methods to rely on and continued to use these methods year after year.

Investigators also ascertained mothers' attitudes about spanking when their infants were 6 months of age by asking them to rate 10 statements about spanking, including "Sometimes a spank is the best way to get my child to listen" and "A spank is not an effective method to change my child's behavior long term." Investigators found that mothers' attitudes about spanking and their reports of spanking their child at each of the six-month assessments correlated highly.

Mothers who used physical punishment also were asked about the context of the incidents. Most (82%) said that, before spanking, they tried other techniques of discipline. As the child grew older, a mother was more likely to warn about an impending spanking. At least three quarters of mothers reported that they tried to stay calm during a spanking incident, although one third said they felt angry during the bout. Over time, more mothers felt badly about a spanking afterward. Asked for additional comment about spanking, many mothers expressed doubt about its effectiveness (Vittrup B et al: Pediatrics 2006;117:2055).

Commentary Nearly four fifths of mothers in this study were college educated; 98% lived in a two-parent household. I suspect that families with more financial and social stress than those surveyed use physical punishment even more often than parents who fit the average profile of those studied here.

This study points out that parents discipline early and form opinions on the appropriateness of physical punishment even earlier. I wonder if screening the parents of newborns would help us identify potential spankers. We could then direct anticipatory guidance toward alternative ways to discipline.