Prevalence Of Physical Discipline
Since the late 1940s, when the first national surveys in the United States were published about spanking, it has been consistently found that almost all parents in the United States have occasionally spanked their children. The data have also shown that over 90 percent of children and adults remember being spanked as children. Because so many parents spank their children and the percentage has remained high over the years, most consider spanking to be a cultural norm in the United States. In fact, according to studies in Britain, Canada, China, Israel, Italy, Kenya, Korea, South Africa, and the West Indies, most parents in most countries around the world spank their children at least occasionally.
Many surveys have also gathered data regarding attitudes about spanking and have found that most parents believe that corporal punishment in a nonabusive manner is an acceptable form of discipline. However, toward the end of the twentieth century the number of parents who believe physical discipline is acceptable consistently dropped in many countries. According to Murray A. Straus (2000), in the United States, for example, between the years 1968 and 1998, "the percent agreeing that a 'good hard spanking is sometimes necessary' dropped from near unanimity to 55 percent" (p. 206).
How does one explain the discrepancy between the decrease in the approval of spanking and the continued use of spanking as a form of punishment? One suggestion is that the 30 to 40 percent difference in behavior and attitudes occurs because many parents use corporal punishment as a last resort, when nothing else seems to work. Some parents may reluctantly spank their children because they cannot think of what else to do to show the child the seriousness of his or her misbehavior.
Although spanking is commonplace in many countries, in 1979 Sweden became the first country to outlaw spanking. Since then, at least seven other countries have enacted similar laws to ban corporal punishment (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Cyprus, Latvia, and Croatia). Several studies have been done in Sweden to attempt to determine the impact of the ban on behavior and attitudes in that country. Some critics of the ban in Sweden point out that Sweden actually showed an increase in the child abuse rate after the law was enacted (e.g., Larzelere and Johnson 1999; Rosellini 1998). Some also suggest that most of the countries that have outlawed spanking are considered permissive in social areas, unlike the United States. As a result, they do not believe the United States should consider a law against corporal punishment.
Those who favor a law like Sweden's point out that surveys in Sweden since 1979 have found dramatic decreases in the use of physical punishment and parental commitment to the use of physical punishment even though breaking this law does not carry any punishment. The surveys indicate that parents no longer believe they need to use physical punishment to achieve compliance in their children. One study (Durrant 2000) in particular, upon examining youth well-being in Sweden since 1979, found that youth have not become more "unruly, undersocialized, or self-destructive following the passage of the 1979 corporal punishment ban" (p. 451).
Although there is nearly universal use of physical discipline by parents, it should be noted that the effects of spanking may vary from one culture to another. Even if one does interpret the data from Sweden as suggesting a positive result from banning spanking in that country, other studies (e.g., Deater-Deckard et al. 1996) have found that the effects of spanking are likely influenced by the parental, familial, and ethnic context in which the family lives. Some studies actually suggest that in certain cultures, especially collectivist cultures that exist in places like China and Africa, parents' failure to spank their children might indicate to the children that their parents do not care enough about them to discipline them. Thus, findings from one group of subjects must not be generalized to everyone.
In addition to information about attitudes towards spanking and frequency of spanking, studies have also consistently found that:
- Boys are spanked more than girls;
- Mothers spank more than fathers;
- Toddlers and preschoolers are spanked most often,
- Parents from lower income groups spank more often;
- Parents who have more education are less likely to spank;
- Religious conservatives are more favorable towards spanking; and
- Some groups, based on cultural and/or ethnic background are more likely to spank their children.
Although it is helpful to know about these tendencies, one must recognize that they have not been true in every study and are not necessarily indicative of every person who fits in one or more of these groups. In addition, many of the studies have asked questions about harsh physical discipline and not the occasional slap on the buttocks. Most studies have also been retrospective in nature, asking subjects to remember their own childhood or to recall how many times they spanked their children in the past. Due to these limitations on the data, one must be careful not to overgeneralize the findings.