With the culture war over spanking still well underway, you might expect that parents who adhere to the practice are starting to feel the stigma.

If they are, it’s not stopping some of them from doling out discipline with the palm of their hands even when researchers are listening in.

A new study in the American Psychological Association Journal of Family Psychology conducted by researches at Southern Methodist University used audio recording devices to track the behavior of parents with their kids.

Mothers were asked to wear Olympus digital voice recorders on their arms in a sport pouch (not exactly an easy thing to forget about) and turn it on when they returned from work, and back off again when their child fell asleep. After six days, 45 percent of the families studied had recorded incidents of corporal punishment, and some started on the very first night.

You can listen to some examples below, but they range from fairly innocuous infractions like “messing with” the pages of a book, to playing with a stove.

The study is considered a preliminary investigation of a potential model for further research that doesn’t just rely on self-reported information that can be riddled with inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

For example, who remembers what how many times they disciplined their child over the course of a year?

Southern Methodist University Professor George Holden, the lead on this project, explained that they solicited parents for a study that was specifically focused on recording yelling behavior as it occurred naturally in the home.

They found 56 people willing to participate, and of those, they studied 33. By the time these mothers returned from work and began dealing with their children, worrying about the recorder strapped to their arm was the least of their worries.

“A lot of parents, particularly in the south, think of it as a good technique to use. They were reared that way so they’ve developed this fundamental belief that spanking is the way to teach people right or wrong,” Holden said. “My guess is they weren’t bashful about using it.”

Despite the small sample size in this pilot study, there are some other interesting observations:

–          A majority of the incidents involved breaking social conventions (such as sucking fingers or getting out of a chair) rather than major infractions, like playing with a stove

–          In 73 percent of the cases where there was corporal punishment, the child misbehaved again within 10 minutes

There were a few incidents of serious infractions that were met with corporal punishment, including a child leaving the home without permission and another who was punished for playing with the stove, but Holden said those were the exceptions

“With those exceptions, virtually all the other things were rival, mundane, normal child behavior that shouldn’t elicit corporal punishment,” he said.

Holden hypothesizes that many of the parents weren’t even really thinking about what they were doing when they resorted to hitting their children, suggesting that self-reporting data could be dramatically under counting the number of incidences that actually occur.

“In this study, parents are … not conscious of their actions, because it’s sort of habitual and they sort of lash out without really thinking about it. And they don’t process … their action,” Holden said. “So my hypothesis would be that they would not be able to very accurately report one week later how often they did these kinds of behaviors.”

There is already a mountain of research out there on how common corporal punishment is, how effective a form of discipline it may be, and how much damage it may do to a child.So what should parents take away from these findings? For Holden, it cemented something he already felt. “I’m convinced that one never needs to hit a child,” Holden said. “And not only that, but it’s not the most effective way of dealing with them.”

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