The prevalence of corporal punishment is high in the United States despite a 1998 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement urging against its use. The current study tests whether the socioeconomic difference in its use by parents has changed over the past quarter century. It goes on to test whether socioeconomic differences in the use of nonphysical discipline have also changed over time.


Data are drawn from 4 national studies conducted between 1988 and 2011. Each asked how often a kindergarten-aged child was spanked in the past week and what the parents would do if the child misbehaved, with physical discipline, time-out, and talking to child as possible responses. We use regression models to estimate parents’ responses to these questions at the 90th, 50th, and 10th percentiles of the income and education distributions and t tests to compare estimates across cohorts.


The proportion of mothers at the 50th income-percentile who endorse physical discipline decreased from 46% to 21% over time. Gaps between the 90th and 10th income-percentiles were stable at 11 and 18 percentage points in 1988 and 2011. The percentage of mothers at the 10th income-percentile endorsing time-outs increased from 51% to 71%, and the 90/10 income gap decreased from 23 to 14 percentage points between 1998 and 2011.


Decline in popular support for physical discipline reflects real changes in parents’ discipline strategies. These changes have occurred at all socioeconomic levels, producing for some behaviors a significant reduction in socioeconomic differences.

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