Kathy Stansbury, a psychologist at Michigan State University, and colleagues found 23 percent of the youngsters received some type of "negative touch" when they failed to comply with a parental request in public places such as restaurants and parks. Negative touch included arm pulling, pinching, slapping and spanking, Stansbury said.
"I was very surprised to see what many people consider a socially undesirable behavior done by nearly a quarter of the caregivers," Stansbury said in a statement. "I have also seen hundreds of kids and their parents in a lab setting and never once witnessed any of this behavior."
University student researchers anonymously observed 106 discipline interactions between a parent and child ages 3-5 in public places such as outdoor playgrounds or family restaurant and recorded the results.
Male caregivers touched the children in more during discipline settings than female caregivers, but the majority of the time it was in a positive manner. Positive touch included hugging, tickling and patting, Stansbury said.
The study, published in the journal Behavior and Social Issues, also found positive touch caused the children to comply more often, more quickly and with less fussing than negative touch, or physical punishment.
Stansbury said when negative touch was used, even when children complied, they often pouted or sulked afterward.
"If your child is upset and not minding you and you want to discipline them, I would use a positive, gentle touch," Stansbury said. "Our data found that negative touch didn't work."