Illustration: Lucy Jones


Breaking the Cycle

Professor Catherine Taylor is testing strategies to prevent spanking and its negative outcomes.

Studies suggest that spanking occurs in more than a third of U.S. families with children. It’s a staggering statistic, especially considering that there is abundant evidence that children who experience physical punishment, such as spanking, are at much greater risk of suffering long-term consequences, according to School of Social Work Professor Catherine Taylor. “They experience many of the same poor outcomes as children who are physically abused,” Taylor said.

Taylor, a specialist in child-abuse prevention who came to Boston College in 2020 after fifteen years at Tulane University, has researched physical punishment’s deleterious effects. In one study, she found that the odds of a child being aggressive at age 5 increased by 50 percent if he or she had been spanked more than twice a month at age 3. Another study she coauthored found that teenagers who had experienced physical punishment as children were significantly more likely to commit dating violence.

Now Taylor is testing strategies to prevent spanking and break the cycle of violence. Her most recent project centers on interventions with parents. She recruited more than 800 mothers in New Orleans to take part in short educational programs designed to give parents alternatives to spanking. One program, called Triple P-Level 2, introduces the principles of positive parenting, such as praising and reinforcing good behavior and setting up rules and expectations that are aligned with a child’s age and stage of development. The other program, Play Nicely, presents parents with different methods for responding to an aggressive child.

“I’m examining these two programs to see if they can change parenting attitudes and behaviors,” Taylor said of the initiative, which is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “If so, then implementing these brief, low-cost programs on a wide scale could help reduce rates of child physical abuse.”

Taylor is optimistic that the use of spanking can be reduced. “Physical punishment persists because it’s normal for parents to do what they learned from their parents,” she said. “But as the science and new recommendations get out, it’s gradually declining.” Indeed, the prevalence of spanking has been trending downward in the U.S. in recent decades, and according to Taylor’s research, nearly three-quarters of American pediatricians do not approve of the practice. Meanwhile, sixty countries—nearly one-third—now ban the use of physical punishment for children, up from just four countries in 1992, per the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.

The key is to let parents know that there are effective alternatives, and Taylor believes the interventions she’s testing will do just that. “We want to get the message out to parents in the most effective way possible,” she said, “so that, for the next generation of children, physical punishment becomes a thing of the past.” 

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