The labels that we give to our experiences can have a moderate to
profound influence on how we interpret and remember these events. Parents and nonparents alike feel better about corporal punishment
when it's called 'spanking' rather than 'hitting' or 'beating,' revealed a new study by researchers at Southern Methodist
Study participants judged identical acts of a child's misbehavior
and the corporal punishment that followed it, but rated the discipline
as better or worse simply depending on the verb used to describe it.
‘Discipline acts referred to as spank and swat were ranked as more effective and acceptable than those referred to as slap, hit or beat.’
Discipline acts referred to as spank and swat were ranked as more
effective and acceptable than those referred to as slap, hit or beat.
The findings of the study indicate that people buffer negative views
of corporal punishment by calling it by a more culturally acceptable
label, said psychologist Alan Brown, psychology professor at SMU and
lead author on the research.
"Our findings suggest that the way child-discipline is described may
alter the action's implied intensity or physical harm, and its
consequences such as emotional upset," Brown said. "Calling a response
to misbehavior a 'swat' may imply higher prevalence of that response as
well as make it seem more justifiable and valid - even if the actual
punishment is the same as an act described more harshly."
Participants in the study rated the acts after reading and
responding to hypothetical scenarios in which a mom disciplined her
misbehaving son. Spank rated highest for commonness, acceptability and
effectiveness, while beat ranked the worst, he said.
"The labels that we give to our experiences can have a moderate to
profound influence on how we interpret and remember these events," Brown
said. "We found that altering the verb used to describe an act of
corporal punishment can change perception of its effectiveness and
acceptance of it."
One implication of the study is that public health interventions to
eliminate corporal punishment should focus on changing the semantics of
discipline to reduce or prevent violence, say the authors. They cite
UNICEF's 2014 recommendation that "There is a need to eliminate words
which maintain 'social norms that hide violence in plain sight.'"
The psychologists endorse replacing the verb spank with the verb
assault, as suggested by other researchers in the field, which they say
could change the perception of spanking and reduce its use.
Labels can buffer how actions are perceived
Research consistently has found that corporal punishment does
emotional and developmental harm to children and fails to improve a
child's behavior over the long run.
"Our belief is that it is never okay to discipline a child by
striking them, and that various terms commonly used to describe such
actions can buffer how these actions are perceived," Brown said. "Our
research demonstrated that ratings of how common, acceptable and
effective an act of corporal punishment appears to be is significantly
influenced by the word used to describe it."
Co-author on the study was psychologist George Holden, a noted
expert on parenting, discipline and family violence and co-author on the
research and a professor in the SMU Department of Psychology.
The findings were reported in the article "Spank, Slap, or Hit? How
Labels Alter Perceptions of Child Discipline" published in the journal Psychology of Violence
The other co-author on the research was Rose Ashraf, a graduate student in SMU's Department of Psychology.
Holden is a founding steering committee member and current president of the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children.
Study examined how different terms influence perceptions and actions
Participants were 191 nonparents and 481 parents.
The discipline scenarios were between a mom and her five-year-old son.
The mom and son varied with each scenario, which described a boy in
eight acts of misbehavior: aggression, stealing, ignoring requests,
deception, teasing, property destruction, animal cruelty and lying.
Study participants read each vignette of misbehavior, and the
subsequent description of the mom's response using a term commonly
reflecting corporal punishment: spank, slap, swat, hit and beat.
The authors selected the labels from the most commonly used terms in
the research literature for corporal punishment in American culture.
The hypothetical scenarios were brief and left context and details
such as the seriousness of the transgression or the intentions of the
misbehaving child to the respondents' imaginations.
For example: "John continues to hit his sibling after his mother has
asked him to stop. John's mother ______ him." The participants then
rated the mother's response on how common it was, how acceptable it was
and how effective it was.
The purpose was to examine how differences in the terms influence perceptions of parental discipline, the authors said.
"Our study highlights the role of language in legitimizing violent
parental behavior," according to the authors in their article. "Altering
the verb used to describe the same act of corporal punishment can have a
substantial impact on how that parental response is evaluated, with
some terms having a relative tempering effect (spank, swat) compared
with others (hit, slap, beat)."