This qualitative study conducted semi-structured, multi-session focus groups and interviews with twenty-seven participants to explore in-depth, participant constructs of child discipline and punishment methods and reasons for the continuing support for corporal punishment of U.S. children. The research assumed that parents want to parent well and utilized the strengths perspective as the instrument to listen to participants' voices. Narratives revealed that participants were thoughtful about discipline and parenting strategies and viewed their parent role as a serious commitment. Non-violent discipline strategies, particularly communication, were often used. However, parents generally framed use of physical punishment as “when children need spanking” versus articulating the view that corporal punishment is a choice. Parents were unfamiliar with risks associated with physical punishment and only three parents, as a result of their foster parent training, had ever heard, “Do not spank.”

Participants enumerated services and recommendations that would support and inform their own parenting, as well as, benefit children and the eighty percent of women and men in the United States who become mothers and fathers. Recommendations included: creation of a national campaign to build on parent strengths and the intentionality of effective parenting; child development education and increased public awareness of positive discipline methods; parenting supports, including respite and venues for dialogue and discourse about parenting. Recommendations are intended to inform child welfare practice and policy, particularly child abuse prevention. Creating, funding, and implementing a national campaign as described would challenge the dominant child welfare paradigm from one currently perceived as punitive and focused on parents' deficits to a strengths-based paradigm that provides supports and assistance to parents and children.

Key Take Away Points

  • The primary, and for some parents the sole, resource for creating discipline and parenting constructs is one's own parents, whether the parents' methods were adopted or rejected by participants.
  • Parents and grandparents are unfamiliar with research on child discipline and the risks associated with corporal punishment of children.
  • Parents recognize that social and environmental changes in the 21st century require new and different discipline strategies, and even when selecting high-risk methods, parents' were thoughtful about child rearing with intentionality of effective parenting.

Author Biography

Elizabeth Breshears, PhD, MSW, MEd, is an assistant professor in the Master of Social Work Department at California State University, Stanislaus. Her primary focus is macro practice social work with an emphasis on public policy and issues of social and economic justice, particularly as they affect children and other vulnerable populations. She received her PhD from the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and her MSW from the School of Social Work at the University of Oklahoma. Breshears is a licensed clinical social worker in Nevada, and prior to joining academia she served in various public and private not-for-profit agency roles, including family programs officer for the Nevada Division of Child and Family Services, program director of family planning for Oklahoma, chief of the Nevada Bureau of Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and administrator of the Nevada Rehabilitation Division. She was formerly selected as a Robert Woods Johnson Foundation Join Together Fellow and as one of the ten outstanding young women of America.

Responses to this Article:

Matthew Sanders, Commentary on "Strengthening Families: Parents' Voices on Discipline and Child Rearing" (November 2011)