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Spanking on the Decline? Fewer Parents Admit to It

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The percentage of parents who say they spank their kids seems to have declined in recent years, new research suggests.

Researchers found that the percentage of mothers in middle-income families who reported spanking their kids declined from 46 percent to 21 percent over the 23-year study period.

However, the results do not mean for sure that the spanking itself, as opposed to parents' reports of spanking, has really declined, said Christopher Ferguson, a professor of psychology at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, who was not involved in the study. It is possible that some parents are shy or embarrassed to admit that they spank their kids, and therefore they choose not to reveal this information in the surveys that are used for this type of research, he told Live Science. [25 Scientific Tips for Raising Happy Kids]

In the study, researchers at Georgetown University in Washington DC, looked at data from four nationally representative surveys that examined the reported prevalence of spanking among the mothers of kindergarten-age children between 1988 and 2011. The authors of those studies determined the mothers' socioeconomic status and asked them how they disciplined their children.

The researchers found that, across all socioeconomic groups, the rates of mothers who reported using spanking declined over the course of the study, while the rates of those who endorsed using nonphysical forms of punishments increased.

For example, the percentage of mothers who endorsed time-outs —a method of disciplining kids that involves separating them from the environments where they engaged in unacceptable behavior —increased from 41 percent in 1988 to 81 percent in 2011, according to the study, published today (Nov. 14) in the journal Pediatrics.

Nonetheless, some parents still report spanking their kids, the researchers said. For example, one-third of mothers in families with the lowest incomes said they spank their kids, the researchers said. And one-quarter of those mothers reported spanking their children in the last week, the researchers found.

The mothers from these families also tended to have low education levels. Together, the findings suggests that more work needs to be done to educate parents to not use spanking as a form of punishment, the researchers said. [How to Do Timeout: 12 Tips from Science]

However, the study did have limitations, Ferguson said. Because spanking has been stigmatized as socially unacceptable, some parents may say they don't spank their kids while they really do, he noted. In some cases, "what people say they do and what they actually do are two different things," he said.

Originally published on Live Science.