Spank, Slap, or Hit? How Labels Alter Perceptions of Child Discipline

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Objective: Words shape our perceptions of behavior, and we applied this maxim to evaluating how different verbs can alter the perception of corporal acts used to discipline children. Specifically, we compared spank, swat, slap, hit, and beat. We hypothesized that (a) parents and nonparents would rate these terms differently, (b) corporal terms would be differentiated in a consistent manner across 3 behavior rating scales (common, acceptable, effective), and (c) acceptable and effective ratings would align more closely to each other than either would to common ratings. Method: In an online survey, participants read 8 vignettes with words used to label parental reactions to child misbehaviors and rated each vignette on how common, acceptable, and effective the response was. Results: Parents rated corporal actions as more common than did nonparents, but the samples were comparable on acceptable and effective ratings. Rank order of corporal term ratings was consistent across rating scales, with spank rated as the most common, acceptable, and effective response, followed (in order) by swat, hit, slap, and beat. Finally, evaluations of corporal terms on the acceptability and effectiveness of parental responses were more closely aligned with each other than either was to evaluations of how common the responses are. Conclusion: The specific verbs used to describe acts of physical discipline can alter interpretations of the associated behavior, and potentially serve to normalize, conceal, or justify violent actions.

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