There is near-consensus in the scientific community that corporal punishment has negative effects on children, sparking interest in educating parents about its potential harms. Attempts to reduce parents’ use of corporal punishment, often referred to as spanking, through online education, may only succeed when directly addressing parental beliefs.
Our conclusions stem from an experiment we conducted to investigate why parents who support corporal punishment persist in their stance even after being presented with scientific evidence linking it to various negative outcomes in children, including aggression and mental health issues. The study involved parents of 2 to 8-year-olds from 41 states in the United States and was published in the Journal of Family Psychology.
Discomfort Breeds Distrust in Science
In our study, parents were presented with written scientific evidence on corporal punishment through online news articles, including quotes from experts in the field. They also received written opinions supporting corporal punishment from ordinary commentators. Parents in favor of corporal punishment deemed experts less trustworthy than ordinary commentators, thereby avoiding the psychological challenge and discomfort, commonly known as cognitive dissonance, that arises when beliefs conflict with scientific evidence. They might achieve this by questioning the credibility of science and favoring alternative viewpoints that align with their perspectives.
Parents do not outright deny all science related to parenting; they just distrust science conflicting with their views.
However, our findings indicate that parents who favor corporal punishment are not inherently distrustful of science. Their distrust is specific to this particular topic. For example, they had no issue evaluating information from an expert on a neutral topic (such as the importance of children wearing bike helmets), even while questioning the corporal punishment expert. This suggests that parents do not outright deny all science related to parenting; they just distrust science conflicting with their views.
More Practical Approaches Indicated by Research
Given the challenges of online parental education, more effective ways of educating parents about the harms of corporal punishment may involve utilizing experts they already trust, such as their child’s pediatrician. Pediatricians hold a high level of trust among parents. In the United States and Canada, they are encouraged to provide anticipatory guidance—a form of positive counseling—on child care topics, like the importance of children wearing bike helmets or ensuring firearms are safely stored, even if parents haven’t raised these issues. The risks of corporal punishment should be a regularly discussed topic with parents, along with alternative discipline methods. Pediatricians suggest that it’s best to broach this subject during infancy, allowing parents to reflect on available options before inappropriate behaviors arise. However, pediatricians are not always trained for this task and may benefit from advice on how to bring up these issues and engage in these discussions.
Beliefs Support Parental Resistance to Science
To some extent, most parents who corporally punish young children believe in this practice. Some employ it because their parents used it on them, and they believe it to be effective. Others view it as a last resort, feeling they need corporal punishment in their toolbox to communicate certain messages in specific situations. Simply telling parents not to spank their children without providing a realistic and credible alternative is less likely to win converts. Experts seem to have taken away parents’ last resort without offering a solution they believe will work in tense situations. Furthermore, if the alternatives presented by experts seem too challenging or time-consuming, parents may exhibit solution aversion—avoiding a solution perceived as impractical or frightening and sticking to what they know.
In conclusion, bridging the gap between scientific evidence and parental beliefs on corporal punishment requires a nuanced approach. Pediatricians and trusted figures in parenting should play a pivotal role in guiding parents toward alternative disciplinary methods, ensuring a more positive and effective parenting landscape for the future.