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Like Adrian Peterson, Majority Of U.S. Parents Use Physical Discipline


When it was revealed last week that Adrian Peterson, the star running back of the Minnesota Vikings, had punished his child by beating him with a stick, something else was revealed. What many Americans regard as child abuse, others recall simply as the way they were raised. Former basketball great Charles Barkley said that Adrian Peterson may have gone too far, but...

CHARLES BARKLEY: I'm from the South. Whipping - we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.

SIEGEL: The principle of spare the rod and spoil the child was commonly observed until not too long ago. Those who beat their children could cite the Bible. The book of Proverbs equates not physically punishing a son with hating him. Kids need discipline. How and when did this change for so many Americans? We're going to ask Professor Elizabeth Gershoff at the University of Texas at Austin. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: And first, how common is corporal punishment of children in the American household these days?

GERSHOFF: It is still fairly common. Around three-quarters of American parents spank their children at least once a year or so.

SIEGEL: And in school?

GERSHOFF: In school it is legal in 19 states. And around 200,000 children are paddled each year in schools.

SIEGEL: You say the majority of parents physically punish their children about once a year. How much does that practice vary by race, region, education level, class - whatever?

GERSHOFF: It varies a fair amount. We know that it varies by race or ethnic group. African-American parents, in particular, spank more often than other groups. Whites and Latinos spank about the same. And Asian-Americans spank the least.

What we do also know is that there are not differences in the effects of spanking on children by race or ethnic group. And so with a large national sample, we found that even though African-American parents do spank more often, it's not more effective at increasing children's positive behavior and in fact has the opposite effect and increases children's aggressive behavior over time.

SIEGEL: Are you using spanking to mean also using a switch, as was used in this case, or a paddle or a belt or something like that?

GERSHOFF: Most of the time, we're talking about hitting a child on the behind with an open hand. That's what most Americans think of as spanking. But there are regional differences in that. And between 10 and 20 percent of Americans still use some kind of object to hit a child. So what Adrian Peterson did is actually not that uncommon.

SIEGEL: There are lots of people today who are parents who were disciplined by their parents by being beaten and consider it normal and therefore beat their children.

GERSHOFF: That's true. We do see that cycle of violence continuing through generations. Our own parents are our best example for how to parent. We live with our parents for many years. And that's the most close-up view of parenting we've ever seen. But there are many parents who are breaking that cycle and realizing that it is possible to raise children without hitting them. And that in fact if you don't hit them, you can raise perfectly good and perhaps even more well-behaved children who don't have the mental-health problems and behavior problems that are often associated with frequent spanking.

SIEGEL: When did public opinion, at least among the 25 percent of households that don't even spank their children - when did it turn against corporal punishment of your kids?

GERSHOFF: It's been gradually changing since the '60s, which is when we first have some good data on that. In the 1960s, around 90 percent of adults believed that spanking was necessary and important for raising children. Now that's around 75 percent. So it's gone down a little bit. And rates of spanking itself have gone down about the same amount.

SIEGEL: That's a pretty slow drawdown of support for physically disciplining your children.

GERSHOFF: Yes. It's been a very gradual decline here in the U.S. with still a vast majority of people being in favor of spanking. What's interesting is that in other countries we've seen a very different situation. There's been a much sharper tipping point, in large part because of the UN convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1989 by the UN. And all countries in the world have ratified that except for the U.S. and Somalia. And the convention protects children against any kind of violence, including corporal punishment. And because of that, 38 countries now have agreed that corporal punishment of children, including spanking, violates children's human rights. And they have banned spanking altogether, both in homes and in schools.

SIEGEL: Just us and the Somalis, huh?


SIEGEL: Professor Gershoff, thank you very much for talking with us.

GERSHOFF: You're welcome.

SIEGEL: That Elizabeth Gershoff, who is professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.