Parents and the Specific Power of the Word “Spank”

Moms and dads normalize spanking by drawing distinctions between that and other corporal punishment terms.

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Parents who think spanking kids is less problematic than slapping or hitting kids may be normalizing corporal punishment even if they aren’t behaving violently towards their children. According to a first of its kind study on disciplinary language published in the journal Psychology of Violence,  parents think spanking is more common than non-parents and more acceptable and effective than “slapping,” “hitting,” or “swatting.” They believe this regardless of whether or not its clear what the difference between those ways of striking a child actually are. The findings suggest that even parents who don’t employ corporal punishment struggle to reject violence as a parenting tactic.

“When parents talk about disciplining their children, we noticed that they often are careful to make distinctions about their behavior,” study coauthor George Holden, professor and chair of the psychology department at Southern Methodist University in Dallas Texas. “For example, a father might say, ‘Sure, I spank my son but I would never hit him, much less beat him.’”

Unsure of what the actually distinctions being made were, Holden and his team were curious about how adults use and judge language related to punishments, specifically given that a significant body of data seems to suggest that spanking is ineffective and potentially harmful to affected kids, who are more likely to be violent later in life than their peers. Holden and his team were curious to learn how behaviors on the blurry line between acceptable and abusive were normalized by language.

To figure this out, Holden and his colleagues compared the perceptions of 481 parents of children between the ages of two and six years old to 191 adults without kids, via online surveys. Participants were presented with eight written vignettes of scenarios with young children misbehaving, where parents had one of eight reactions: spank, slap, swat, hit, beat, yell, ignore, and reason with. The final three reactions were not considered corporal, despite researchers acknowledging yelling as a harsh form of discipline with plenty of negative effects. Subjects then were asked to rank each reaction in terms of how common, effective, and acceptable it was.

Results revealed that parents regarded spanking as more common than non-parents and parents made a large distinction between spanking and all other corporal words. Spanking was seen as the most common, effective, and acceptable of the corporal punishments followed by swat, hit, slap, and beat. Of the 30 statistical tests the researchers ran comparing the five corporal punishments, significant differences with were found with spanking 27 times. This indicates that the word spank is particularly distinctive among parents and regarded at the most acceptable form of corporal punishment, Holden says.

The study, like all research comes with limitations, particularly the fact that these scenarios were presented in writing, as opposed to seeing a parent discipline a child this way. It’s possible this could make such severe actions read as less harmful without observing it in a more visceral way. Though the study did not look at the differences between mothers and fathers, Holden suspects that it would be more useful to divide groups based on their disciplinary beliefs rather than sex. Despite the caveats, the study suggests that if spanking was regarded the same way as hitting, perhaps fewer moms and dads would do it, Holden says.

“If the word ‘spank’ was outlawed and replaced with ‘hit’ or ‘beat,’ I predict parents would change their behavior.”

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