Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 27-January-2006, Vol 119 No 1228
On the receiving end: young adults describe their parents’ use of physical punishment and other disciplinary measures during childhood
Jane Millichamp, Judy Martin, John Langley
The topic of child punishment has generated considerable emotion and debate amongst members of the public, doctors, educators, and politicians as well as those from different religious, cultural, and ethnic groups. Even members of the same family may hold opposing views about the use of punishment with children. The research literature appears to mirror the public debate with academics differing in their views and interpretations of the available findings.1–3 A particular issue of contention centres around whether smacking of children should be legally permitted.4
Prevalence research on the topic of childhood punishment can be grouped into three broad areas: studies of public attitudes; parental reports of punishment use; and recipient reports of punishments experienced in childhood.
Several studies have been conducted in New Zealand to determine public views regarding the physical punishment of children and adolescents. Such research has indicated that between 80% and 87% of respondents agree that a parent should be able to smack a child with an open hand.5,6 A smaller proportion of respondents (15%5; 31%6) endorse the use of more severe methods, such as hitting a child with a wooden spoon or belt, hitting a teenager, or thrashing a child. Researchers in the United States have documented similar community attitudes towards the use of physical punishment.7
New Zealand research conducted in the 1990s has shown smacking to be a prevalent disciplinary method, as reported by parents. Ritchie found that about half of parents surveyed reported hitting their child once a week or more.8 Maxwell found that 70% of parents reported smacking their children; 11% had hit them with an object such as a strap, and 2% reported giving their child a thrashing.6 Maxwell noted that these numbers may be artificially low due to memory demands, the young age of some respondents’ children, and media coverage of a child murder case at the time, which may have influenced respondents’ willingness to report the use of physical punishment.
North American studies have also shown that the vast majority of parents report spanking or smacking their children, with prevalence figures ranging from 70% to 95%.7,9–11 The age of the child is an important factor and smacking is most prevalent during early childhood. Straus (1990) found that 95% of toddlers were smacked.12 More severe forms of physical punishment, such as hitting the child with an object, appear to be less common with one study indicating a prevalence rate of 17%.7
Fergusson and Lynskey (1997) presented their findings related to young New Zealanders’ reports of physical punishment.13 Of the 1025 18-year-olds in the Christchurch-born sample, 78% reported having received physical punishment on an infrequent basis, 8% on a regular basis by at least one parent, and 4% reported parental use of physical punishment that was overly frequent, harsh, or abusive. Only 11% of the sample reported no physical punishment by parents.
Consistent with New Zealand rates, North American studies have shown prevalence figures ranging from 80% to 95% for those reporting being smacked.14–16 However, these studies provide little information about the different types of physical and non-physical punishment used, the identity of the punishers (e.g. mothers, fathers, step-parents), and the respondents’ views or emotional reactions to punishments received.
The role of contextual factors has largely been examined in relation to broader family and individual characteristics rather than the immediate circumstances in which the punishment was administered.17 Two research teams have used large community samples to show correlations between physical punishment and family characteristics such as single parenting, young maternal age, and low socioeconomic status.9,13
Woodward and Fergusson (2002) examined data from their earlier study13 and identified additional factors associated with harsh or severe treatment in childhood, including child variables (conduct or attention problems, lower IQ), maternal characteristics (difficulties with own mother, history of depression, alcohol/drug abuse), and contextual features (high marital conflict, child witnessing of interparental violence, stressful life events).18
A criticism of contextual studies has been that they have generally focused on:
In summary, studies on child punishment have indicated that physical punishment (particularly smacking) is widely endorsed and much-used by parents in many Western countries,8–11,13–16 with a small percentage of children subjected to severe violence.13,19 However, some gaps in the research literature have been noted, such as the limited information available on situational factors associated with childhood punishment.17
The present study provides information about the prevalence, forms, and context of physical punishment from early childhood to late adolescence, as well as the recipients’ views regarding the punishments received. Gender differences are compared for both recipients and punishers in order to give a clear picture of who is most likely to be responsible for, or recipient of, the various types of physical punishment.
Participants were members of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study (DMHDS), a longitudinal investigation of the health, development, and behaviour of 1037 young New Zealanders. All children born at Dunedin’s only obstetric hospital between 1 April 1972 and 31 March 1973 and still living in Otago at 3 years of age were eligible for inclusion in the study.
Study members (SMs) have been assessed at regular intervals since birth. A wide range of demographic data, physiological measures, and parent/family variables have been collected at different stages of the study. A detailed description of the DMHDS is provided by Silva and Stanton (1996).20 The SMs have been shown to be more frequently of European descent and higher socioeconomic status than the New Zealand population as a whole. However, the high retention rate has resulted in a full cross-section of the sample being represented. Ethical approval was granted for Phase 26 of the study, including the current assessment.
980 SMs participated in a 1-day DMHDS assessment in 1998/1999. SMs were 26 years old at the time. A 10-minute face-to-face interview on family violence was completed by 962 SMs (92.8% of the original sample). Interviewers were female health professionals trained and supervised by the Principal Investigator (Judy Martin).
Most of the interview was related to parental disciplinary methods. SMs were given the following introductory statement:
Looking back at your childhood, I would like to ask about punishment or discipline in your home. By punishment I mean everything that happened when your parents were angry with you, not just hitting.
This was the first time since birth that SMs were asked about physical punishment.
Parental discipline questions covered three main areas:
SMs were allocated to one of four groups according to the most severe physical punishment reported at any time during the interview. These groups were:
SMs were assigned to the No Physical Punishment group if there were no reports of physical punishment at any stage of the interview.
The Smacking group consisted of those SMs who reported parental smacking with open hand on legs, hand, or bottom, as the most severe physical punishment ever received.
The Hit with Object group involved SM reports of being hit with an object such as a wooden spoon or strap, being slapped on the face, or being clipped around the ear, none of which entailed injury or lasting bruises.
Extreme physical punishment was recorded when SMs reported more than one instance of the following parental behaviour: hitting with a strap or a hard object that left cuts, lasting bruises, or welts; “beating up” (i.e. out-of-control hitting; punching; knocking-out); choking; sitting on; throwing on floor or against wall etc; sexual violation.
All four categories were derived from reports that SMs had made at any time during the parental discipline interview (i.e. either “usual” or “worst” punishment).
For questions about worst punishment, SMs were asked to describe the worst punishment they had ever received from either of their parents. If the first answer involved a non-physical form of punishment, the SM was prompted for any physical punishment. Worst ever punishment responses were similarly assigned to one of the four groups (non-physical, smacking, hit with object, and, extreme).
SMs were included in the appropriate category for worst-ever punishment, even if they had experienced a particular punishment only once. SMs could nominate more than one worst punishment, but they were assigned a severity level based on the most severe of the worst punishments mentioned. All SMs were asked who carried out the worst punishment, how often it occurred, and how much it upset them.
Details of the extent of injury and the site of punishment (target area) were gathered for physical punishments more severe than a smack. In addition, all SMs were asked how old they were when last hit and how much they were hit compared to other children their age.
Reasons stated by the SMs for the worst punishment received were compared across the four severity levels of punishment. For every SM in the extreme physical punishment group (n = 58), equal numbers of comparison SMs were randomly selected from the three other punishment groups. This was achieved by using the identification number closest to that of the SM from the extreme group.
232 SMs were included in this analysis. Content analysis was used to categorise the reasons for punishment.
Reasons were divided into six categories:
SMs were asked at age 26 to report retrospectively on family composition, with nuclear families defined as comprising the two birth (or adoptive) parents and non-nuclear families comprising a single parent and/or step-parent. The quality of the parental relationship was assessed by asking SMs at age 26 whether their parents got on well/had lots of rows. Other variables such as parents’ ages at SM’s birth were gathered at earlier phases of the study.
Interviewers monitored all SMs for signs of emotional distress during the interviews and offered the assistance of a clinical psychologist when appropriate. (A clinical psychologist was available on site during all interviews.) The interviewer made notes of any signs of distress or emotion (e.g. tears in eyes, shaking) and recorded details in a separate section.
Data were analysed using SPSS v11 software. Cross tabulation was used for categorical variables and comparison of means for continuous variables.
Table 1 presents the four severity levels of physical punishment in relation to a number of demographic and family variables. The results show that a total of 80% of SMs reported receiving physical punishment at some time during childhood. One-fifth of the SMs (20%) did not report any physical punishment, 29% reported smacking as the most severe, 45% said they had been hit with an object, and 6% reported extreme physical punishment involving injury or lasting bruises.
Table 1. Levels of physical punishment by demographic and family variables of study members (SMs)
More women than men reported smacking as the most severe physical punishment; more men than women reported being hit with an object. Both genders had similar reported rates of extreme physical punishment. There was a significant difference in reported levels of physical punishment when nuclear and non-nuclear families were compared. SMs in nuclear families experienced lower levels of severe punishment than SMs from non-nuclear families. A positive association was also found between inter-parental conflict and reports of extreme physical punishment.
Of the SMs in the extreme punishment group, 17% reported exposure to frequent parental rows, versus only 2% who reported that parents got on really well. When parents’ ages were compared across punishment levels, it was found that SMs with younger mothers (mean age: 23 years) were more likely to report receiving extreme physical punishment in childhood.
Table 2 presents the SMs’ responses to the question What did your parents usually do when they were mad at you? for both primary and secondary school years. SMs gave unprompted answers to this question, with more than one response being possible. The results show that for primary school age, smacking was the most commonly cited punishment with 55% of SMs reporting this, followed by telling off (47%), yelling (36%), and being hit with an object (35%).
Both categories of physical punishment showed significant gender differences at primary school age: females were more likely to report being smacked than males, and males were more likely to report being hit with an object.
Table 2. Usual forms of discipline compared by gender
*Types of punishment are not mutually exclusive (SMs could name more than one); †Emotional abuse involved excessive use of sarcasm or criticism, emotional blackmail, public humiliation, deliberate destruction of property, and ridicule.
For secondary school years, the most commonly reported forms of punishment were (in order of prevalence) loss of privileges (48%), telling off (41%), yelling/shouting (28%), and reasoning/discussion (21%). Smacking ranked fifth in order, with 12% of SMs citing this as a usual form of punishment in secondary school years.
Four categories of parental discipline showed significant gender differences for secondary school years. Males more frequently reported a telling off from parents whereas females more frequently cited incidents of yelling, loss of privileges and smacking.
With the exception of the more extreme forms of punishment, there was a general trend for physical punishment to abate in secondary school years, when compared to primary years. For both smacking and being hit with an object, there were four times as many SM reports (both male and female) in primary years versus secondary years.
When SMs were asked for their views about whether they were hit more, the same, or less than other children, their perceptions accurately reflected the prevalence data across the four groups. For example, the majority (80%) of SMs in the no physical punishment group said they were hit less than others and the majority (72%) of those who received extreme physical punishment said they were hit more. The vast majority (98%) of those in the smacking group thought they were hit about the same or less than others.
Table 3 presents the SMs’ responses regarding the worst ever punishments received. A wide range of physical and non-physical punishments were described, with many SMs naming more than one punishment each. Punishments were collapsed into four broad categories. The category most frequently cited as the worst punishment was non-physical punishment (50%), which mostly comprised grounding and loss of privileges. The next most frequently cited worst punishment was being hit with an object (48%), followed by smacking (24%) and finally, extreme physical punishment with 9% of SMs naming this as the worst.
The four categories of worst punishment were compared according to the person who had carried out the punishment (see Table 3). At the mild end, non-physical forms of punishment were significantly more likely to be carried out by mothers (χ2=34.76, , p<0.001). As the severity of punishment increased, there were fewer reported instances of both parents administering the punishment (χ2=34.86, , p<0.001). At the extreme end, fathers were significantly more likely to be cited for administering extreme punishment (χ2=69.25, , p<0.001).
Only a small proportion of SMs lived with stepfathers (15%). Within “stepfathered” families, stepfathers were responsible for extreme punishment at a similar rate to fathers in “fathered” families (7% stepfathers cf 6.3% fathers).
Table 3 also presents results for how often the worst punishment was carried out and how upset SMs were about the punishment received. Reports from all four groups of SMs showed that occurrences of worst punishment were generally low, with most SMs experiencing their worst-ever punishment on the rare occasion. In contrast, the degree of distress reported by study members was high, with the majority stating that they were very upset by the experience. Of the four groups, the highest proportion of “very upset” SMs was found in the extreme physical punishment group.
Data relating to the extent of injury were collected for all SMs reporting punishment more severe than smacking. Of these 351 SMs, 60% reported no injury, 25% reported bruising, and 13% reported other forms of injury. Results related to the part of body targeted for physical punishment showed that SMs who reported punishment in the extreme range were significantly more likely to be hit on the head (75% vs 24%; OR 9.29; 95% CI: 4.80–17.99) or the torso (54% vs 12%; OR 8.86; 95% CI: 4.69–16.72) than those reporting lower-level punishment.
When SMs were asked how old they were when they received their last physical punishment, 47% reported being 12 years or more. Physical punishment ceased for most SMs at ages 10 and 12 years, with approximately 12% of SMs citing each of these ages. However, of the SMs who reported physical punishment, 40% were still being hit between the ages of 13 and 18 years.
Content analysis of reasons for worst punishment (n=232) revealed there was no appreciable difference in the seriousness of the misdemeanor in relation to the severity of physical punishment meted out.
Only one difference was found in the reasons SMs gave as the cause of their punishment. This was attributing the punishment to characteristics of the parent (e.g. parental bad temper, alcoholism); this reason was offered by 17% (10/58) of the SMs who reported extreme physical punishment and 4% (2/58) of those reporting hitting with an object. No SMs in the other two groups (no physical punishment and smacking) cited parental characteristics.
Analysis of interviewer notes relating to SM distress during the interview showed that a higher percentage of SMs in the extreme physical punishment group (22%) showed signs of emotional distress than those in the hit with object (2%), smacking (1%) or no physical punishment (1%) groups.
This study showed that the large majority of SMs (80%) were exposed to physical punishment during childhood. Reported prevalence was highest for primary school years, with large reductions in reports of regular physical punishment for secondary school years. Nonetheless, nearly half of all SMs were hit as teenagers, if only on an occasional basis. American researchers, Straus and Donnelly (1993) reported similar figures for the use of physical punishment with adolescents.21
The present findings are based on retrospective reports of events that took place in the 1970s and 1980s. This raises questions about the fallibility of memory and the applicability of findings to the present day. However, the prevalence figures obtained in this study are very consistent with those of recent studies both in New Zealand and North America6–8,11,13–16 suggesting that in some populations at least, rates of physical punishment have not altered greatly over the past few decades.
Another potential weakness of the present study relates to the fact that the main focus was placed on physical punishment with questions about what parents did when angry. Limited information was gathered about positive disciplinary methods (e.g. rewards and praise) and emotional abuse. This information was recorded only when SMs volunteered it spontaneously.
Significant gender differences were found for those reporting physical punishment. In particular, at primary school age, more girls were reportedly smacked and more boys hit with an object. Other studies have shown similar results for boys in terms of the greater prevalence and severity of physical punishment.7,16
This study provided new information regarding punisher characteristics. No previous studies were found which investigated disciplinary behaviour of step-parents in a community population (child abuse studies excepted). The present findings indicated that, when the proportions of parented versus step-parented families were taken into account, stepmothers and stepfathers were no more likely than their mother/father counterparts to administer physical punishment, contradicting a popular negative view of step-parents.
Of the few studies which have investigated mother/father punishment ratios, the findings have been mixed with several studies showing similar rates8,11,22 and several indicating that mothers dispense most of the punishment6,7 when all forms of physical punishment were considered together. However, these findings need to be tempered with the fact that many mothers spend a greater proportion of time with children, increasing the probability of discipline use.
This study showed differential use of punishment procedures by parents, with mothers cited more often for the use of non-physical methods such as loss of privileges, and fathers and stepfathers more frequently associated with the use of extreme punishment. One reason for the predominance of males in physical punishment categories might be related to prevailing sex stereotypes regarding whose duty it is to administer physical punishment. In a separate strand of the DMHDS which investigated beliefs about parenting, many SMs at age 15 voiced the opinion that fathers should take responsibility for punishing children’s bad behaviour.20 Furthermore, the tendency for some fathers to punish on behalf of their partners (i.e. mothers) has been noted in one study.22
The identification of male caregivers as more likely to deliver extreme punishment adds to the research findings and presents a more complex picture than previous research has indicated. It now appears that different caregivers are linked to different forms of punishment, with fathers and stepfathers more commonly associated with extreme punishment. Two small-scale studies have provided limited evidence to support the present findings. In the first study, a subset of respondents receiving high levels of corporal punishment reported that the most severe physical punishment was delivered by their fathers.16
A second study showed a difference (albeit non-significant) in parental use of severe physical punishment, with fathers outnumbering mothers.22 Preventive efforts may be more effective if focused on fathers and stepfathers specifically, facilitating the use of non-physical methods of disciplining children, as well as techniques for conflict and anger management.
The fact that there was no relationship found between reason cited for punishment (i.e. extent of misdemeanor) and severity of punishment administered, suggests that parents do not apportion punishment to fit the “crime”. It may be that parents fall back on one or two forms of discipline regardless of the particular child behaviour. If this is the case, then educative methods may be beneficial in assisting parents to use non-physical methods and/or restitution more appropriate and effective for the specific misdemeanor.
This study adds to the research knowledge regarding recipients’ views about the punishments received, given that no previous community-based studies on this topic could be identified. An unexpected finding was that non-physical punishment was most frequently regarded as the worst punishment ever received, with 50% of SMs naming at least one non-physical punishment method such as privilege loss. This figure is in contrast to the much smaller percentage (20%) of SMs who reported receiving only non-physical punishment during childhood. This finding could be due to the recency effect in that SMs interviewed at 26 years might be more likely to recall events occurring closer in time (i.e. in adolescence) to their current age.
Nonetheless, the fact that many SMs stated explicitly that methods such as grounding were far worse than any physical punishment received during childhood, suggests that these methods may have aversive qualities in their own right which make them memorable. The potent nature and aversive qualities of privilege loss (as deemed by the SMs) make it a more effective punisher in behavioural terms.23 This finding has implications for parents in terms of the choice of punishment methods for use in late childhood and early adolescence. A further advantage of such methods is that they do not involve physical intervention or force, with the inherent risks of negative modelling, escalation, retaliation, and injury.
One negative side effect of physical punishment (i.e. emotional distress) was clearly evident in this study. Not only did 79% of SMs in the extreme physical punishment group indicate verbally that they were “very upset” at the time of punishment, but also, nearly a quarter showed physical signs of emotional distress, such as tearfulness, during the interview. This finding suggests that severe physical punishment can result in strong emotional reactions, even when the punitive events occurred 10 to 15 years earlier.
The present study sheds light on the category of physical punishment labelled as “extreme” with results indicating that this form of punishment is quite different from less severe forms (i.e. smacking, hitting with an object). Whereas lower-level physical punishments are more often directed at younger children (primary school age) and are gender-specific (with girls generally receiving milder physical punishment), extreme physical punishment appears to be administered indiscriminately—on girls and boys, and both younger and older children.
In addition, the present results suggest that extreme punishment is more frequently:
Outcome research has indicated unequivocally that extreme or abusive punishment has harmful negative consequences.13,24,25 For this reason, it is crucial that research continues to identify the significant factors associated with its use. A paper examining more closely the relationship between levels of punishment and outcomes in early adulthood is currently in preparation.
Parental use of punishment appears to be influenced by many contextual factors including gender, age, parent/family characteristics, and environmental conditions. While this study provides additional information on contextual factors, there is still much to be learned about punishment use and misuse. For instance, little is known about parents’ concurrent use of positive disciplinary procedures (e.g. positive feedback, physical affection) and the effects these techniques might have on measures such as emotional distress.
In addition, further research is warranted to delineate clearly between different types of punishment. Two groupings used in the present study may have contained a wide range of acts with either negative or positive implications for recipients. Specifically, the Hit with Object punishment category included being hit with a slipper through to being hit with a jug cord, and No physical punishment could have included a range of experiences from parental reasoning and privilege loss through to psychological abuse and neglect. This may have caused ambiguity in a number of SM reports.
The use of punishment with children is a complex issue involving specific practices ranging from mild (e.g. verbal disapproval, reasoning) to extreme (e.g. physical assault, emotional abuse) and with the potential to result in injury, emotional harm, and death. All evidence to date suggests that it is triggered and maintained by a wide range of factors. It is hoped that the courage of study members (in New Zealand and world wide) to share their experiences and divulge personal information from the past will promote further research and enable the development of effective and positive parenting strategies for the future.
Author information: C Jane Millichamp, Lecturer; Judy Martin, Senior Teaching Fellow, Department of Psychological Medicine; John Langley, Director, Injury Prevention Research Unit; Department of Preventive and Social Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine, University of Otago, Dunedin
Acknowledgements: The Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit is funded by the NZ Health Research Council (HRC grant 98/1408). We thank Vinita Mathew, Dr Judy Trevena, Natasha Pomeroy, the Psychological Medicine Research Group, Peter Herbison, Anita Admiraal, and Assoc Prof Richie Poulton for their assistance and helpful comments on this paper. Thanks also to the two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback. We are very grateful to the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study Members and their families who have given their time and shared their personal information over many years.
Correspondence: Dr C Jane Millichamp, Dept of Psychological Medicine, Dunedin School of Medicine, PO Box 913, Dunedin. Fax: (03) 474 7934; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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