top of page

Take Me To EVENTS page

Why Do Parents Physically Punish their Children? 5 Useful Analogies from Sedimentary Rocks

Childhood Days
This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.

I’m not a geologist, so I need a little latitude when I draw an analogy between why parents physically punish their children and characteristics of sedimentary rocks. But having researched the determinants (or predictors) of physical punishment for many years, I can point out five useful analogies.

1. Methods of physical punishment, like sedimentary rocks, vary

Sedimentary rocks come in many forms (e.g., limestone, sandstone, oil shale). Physical (also called corporal) punishment methods are also heterogeneous: parents slap, spank, whip (hit with an object), whop, or use some other physically painful method (e.g., “hot saucing”). The common denominator is that the punishment is intended to cause pain in order to teach a lesson.

There is considerably diversity in the application of physical punishment:

  1. A small percent (17% according to Combes-Orme & Cain, 2008) of parents hit their infants and a similar percent also hit their 17-year olds (Straus & Stewart, 1999).

  2. Most (85%) children in the U.S. will experience it at least once (Bender et al., 2007). Some parents rarely use it (once a year or less) but others rely on it.

  3. In fact, in a home audio-recording, we discovered that one mother hit her child every 2 hours! (Holden, Williamson, & Holland, 2014).

  4. The frequency of hitting varies with parent education, socioeconomic status, race, religious beliefs, and age as well as the sex of parent (e.g., Berlin et al., 2009; Ellison, Musick & Holden, 2011; Gershoff, Lansford, Sexton, Davis-Kean, & Sameroff, 2012; Lee, Altschul & Gershoff, 2015).

2. Influences on physical punishment are layered

We learned in earth science classes that sedimentary rock is deposited in strata (layers), with the new deposits on top of old ones. That idea of layers of determinants is useful for recognizing the multiple influences on physically disciplining children.

At the surface (or proximate) level, a parent spanks because a child engaged in a behavior that the parent did not like. The child may have done something (e.g., hit someone) or not done something (e.g., not complied immediately with a request).

Research evidence (Holden, Coleman, & Schmidt, 1995; Holden et al., 2014) indicates that parents hit children most often for mundane actions (e.g., taking someone’s toy, picking their nose), and only rarely for serious moral transgressions (e.g., lying, stealing).

Child characteristics associated with more frequent hitting include:

  1. sex (boys),

  2. age (peaks at 3 or 4 years), and

  3. temperament (difficult).

From a parental cognitive perspective, many parents use physical punishment because they think it works. Parents observe the child’s reaction in the short term—the child is upset and stops the behavior—so, they conclude it is an effective teaching tool. Parents also believe that the punishment promotes effective child socialization because it teaches the child what not to do.

However, the research evidence (Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016) actually indicates just the opposite: physical punishment models aggression and children who are punished in this way are more likely to show a variety of developmental problems in the future. Although many parents believe in physical punishment as a means to an end, when they use it, they are typically stressed, frustrated, or angry with their child.

3. Interaction between influences on physical punishment

But at deeper levels, other factors are at play. Many parents originally base their views—either for or against physical punishment—on their own childhood experiences.

That view can be altered by a variety of influences, including:

  1. views of normative disciplinary techniques,

  2. stress,

  3. socio-economic, ethnic or racial group,

  4. religious beliefs,

  5. parent education, or

  6. advice from trusted sources, such as pediatricians.

Just as multiple processes help to form sedimentary rocks, these factors interact with each other. The influence of the different factors can be measured with surveys about parents’ attitudes toward physical punishment.

4. There are a wide range of parental attitudes about physical punishment

A fourth analogy is that sedimentary rock can be soft or hard, depending on its composition. Attitudes about physical discipline range from tenuous to tenaciously clung to. Susceptibility to change thus depends on a parent’s degree of conviction: cracking a hard rock is difficult.

5. Views of physical discipline can change

I end with a final analogy. Sedimentary rocks erode (think Grand Canyon). So, too, is support for physically disciplining children. Survey data in the United States indicate a slow but steady decline. Child Trends found a 22% decrease in women’s favorable attitudes toward hitting children over the past 30 years. That erosion is likely precipitated by various factors including hearing about research into hitting and child behavior problems (Holden, Brown, Baldwin, & Croft Caderao, 2014), recognizing children’s right not to be hit by anyone, or learning alternative techniques—such as positive discipline.

Biography :

George W. Holden, PhD, is a professor and Chair of the Psychology Department at Southern Methodist University. He is a noted expert on parenting, discipline and family violence. He can discuss social development as it relates to parent-child relationships; the nature and consequences of parental harsh punishment; causes and consequences of family violence; child-rearing and parenting; and child maltreatment.


Bender, H. L., Allen, J. P., McElhaney, K. B., Antonishak, J., Moore, C. M., Kelly, H. O., & Davis, S. M. (2007). Use of harsh physical discipline and developmental outcomes in adolescence. Development and Psychopathology, 19, 227-242. doi:10.1017/S0954579407070125

Berlin, L. J., Ispa, J. M., Fine, M. A., Malone, P. S., Brooks-Gunn, J., Brady-Smith, C., . . . Bai, Y. (2009). Correlates and consequences of spanking and verbal punishment for low-income White, African American, and Mexican American toddlers. Child Development, 80(5), 1403-1420. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2009.01341.x

Combs-Orme, T., & Cain, D. S. (2008). Predictors of mothers’ use of spanking with their infants. Child Abuse & Neglect, 32, 649-657. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2007.08.006

Ellison, C. G., Musick, M. A., & Holden, G. W. (2011). Does Conservative Protestantism moderate the association between corporal punishment and child outcomes? Journal of Marriage and Family, 73, 946-961. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2011.00854.x

Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses. Journal of Family Psychology, 30, 453-469. doi:10.1037/fam0000191

Gershoff, E. T., Lansford, J. E., Sexton, H. R., Davis-Kean, P., & Sameroff, A. J. (2012). Longitudinal links between spanking and children’s externalizing behaviors in a national sample of White, Black, Hispanic, and Asian American families. Child Development, 83, 838-843. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01732.x

Holden, G. W., Brown, A. S., Baldwin, A. S., & Croft Caderao, K. (2014). Research findings can change attitudes about corporal punishment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 38, 902-908. doi:

Holden, G. W., Coleman, S., & Schmidt, K. L. (1995). Why 3-year-old children get spanked: Parent and child determinants in a sample of college-educated mothers. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 41, 431-452.

Holden, G. W., Williamson, P. A., & Holland, G. W. (2014). Eavesdropping on the family: A pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home. Journal of Family Psychology, 28, 401-406. doi:10.1037/a0036370

Lee, S. J., Altschul, I., & Gershoff, E. T. (2015). Wait until your father gets home? Mother’s and fathers’ spanking and development of child aggression. Children and Youth Services Review. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2014.11.006

Straus, M. A., & Stewart, J. H. (1999). Corporal punishment by American parents: National data on prevalence, chronicity, severity, and duration in relation to child and family characteristics. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 2, 55-70. doi:10.1023/A:1021891529770

Image source:

36 views0 comments


bottom of page