Sixty-three countries—nearly a third of the world—ban the use of physical punishment with children. In the early 1990s, that number was only four. U.S. law protects adults from assault, but current policies and societal conventions suggest that assault toward children is more acceptable, particularly if it is done by parents or guardians. What is often overlooked is the connection between physical punishment of children and broader public health and societal issues—which is where Catherine Taylor’s work lies.
“From a public health perspective, when we think about what is developmentally appropriate for children, there is no line between physical punishment and abuse,” Taylor said. “There is no safe, healthy way to hit a child, so the evidence shows hitting children can only lead to less healthy outcomes.”
Taylor, who joined Boston College’s School of Social Work in the summer of 2020, has spent over 20 years trying to understand the relationship between public health, violence protection, and children’s exposure to trauma. Her latest endeavor sprouts from the intersection between these—she is finding new and effective methods to disincentivize parents from hitting and spanking their children, a field of study that is often taboo, she said.
“She is tireless and compassionate, and this has enabled her to persist in a field of inquiry that draws much controversy,” Belle Liang, a professor in the Lynch School of Education and Human Development, said.
Taylor was born and grew up in Massachusetts. Her curiosity in the sciences began in the eighth grade when she was introduced to the scientific method and how to pose hypotheses, she said. Taylor studied biology at Cornell University and did research at its medical school during her junior year.
After leaving college with this scientific background, she took time off to volunteer for a crisis line for adults who had experienced domestic violence, sexual assault, or who were children of abuse. It was this pivotal experience that exposed her to real-world cases of trauma and mental health, as well as the linkage between the two, according to Taylor.
Taylor then went to Boston University, where her experiences in science, mental health, and trauma converged.
“I found it interesting because it focuses on prevention and how we can actually prevent trauma and abuse for children, so they have a better chance at happier lives,” she said.
While studying for her master’s of public health and epidemiology, she was also interning at South Boston Community Health Center. There, she heard people speak about mental health issues and found the intersection between public health and mental health.
After receiving her master’s degrees, she worked as a research associate at the Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies at Wellesley College, specializing in violence prevention. This work catalyzed Taylor’s decision to pursue her Ph.D., as she realized that she wanted to be able to design her own research projects.
It was during her time as a Ph.D. student at the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health that Taylor’s current research focus on children really began. While at UCLA, a key study came out verifying that there was an abundance of evidence that children who experienced physical punishment were at a much higher risk for experiencing actual physical abuse as legally defined, as well as displaying more aggressive behavior. Additionally, children who are physically punished would be at higher risk for mental health and relationship challenges down the line.
The impacts of physical punishment on a child nearly paralleled the impacts faced by adults who experienced physical abuse, Taylor said. Uncovering the prevalence and lack of regulation regarding physical punishment on children pushed Taylor to question its relationship with mental health and development.
“Generally speaking, being exposed to violence isn’t helpful for children and can raise risks for these issues—antisocial behavior, more mental health problems like depression and anxiety, seeing violence as normative, being more violent, or future victimization,” she said. “Not all children will suffer these repercussions, but there are greater risks to suffer from them.”
With this revelation, Taylor’s career pivoted. Using her public health background, she began researching how disincentivizing the use of punishment on children and encouraging positive parenting can lead to a host of better outcomes down the line.
“It’s our responsibility as a society to move people away from that behavior and towards behaviors that are healthy for children,” she said.
In 2005, Taylor began teaching at the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, where she focused her work on the relation of adverse childhood experiences to public health. Taylor also centers her research on solutions to these issues by focusing on violence prevention. She co-founded Tulane’s Violence Prevention Institute, which lends a broader focus to her work.
Since coming to BC a little over a year ago, Taylor has continued to research her current question of how to prevent violence that impacts children. Her experience and commitment to creating societal change through impacts on children has already earned recognition at BC.
“Dr. Cathy Taylor is one of the most diligent, principled, and conscientious researchers I know,” Liang said. “She is passionate about doing research that serves families and children and has worked for most of her career to raise awareness about the insidious effects of corporal punishment … her work is so important, and Boston College is so fortunate that she has joined its faculty.”
Her current research focus, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health, is also geared toward understanding what contributed to the normalization of physically punishing children in the United States and how to go about shifting those norms. These questions culminated in her search for universal programs to share with parents that will inform them on such topics and take the temperature of the current climate of how parents currently consider these problems.
One of Taylor’s broader findings is that the United States does not provide parents sufficient parental support. Although current societal norms assume parents always know how to manage difficult child behavior, parents are often left to fend for themselves in finding effective ways of managing this kind of behavior, Taylor said.
“If parents were taught growing up that hitting works and did not learn from those strategies, they can pass [that] on for generations,” she said.
In order to raise healthier, happier children, distributing materials that teach positive parenting skills is key, Taylor said.
Specifically, Taylor is interested in understanding who parents turn to when in need of parental advice and how these touchpoints can help discourage the use of physical punishment. One example, she said, is a pediatrician.
“I’m learning about [pediatricians’] attitudes regarding parenting and thinking about how to use them to discourage hitting and find new strategies,” she said. “It posed a question of how I can work with them to better think through this issue.”
To get at this, Taylor set up a randomized control trial in New Orleans to test the efficacy of providing resources to parents with the aim to prevent violence. Participants included over 800 mothers who were beneficiaries of the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition program. Her team designed the project in such a way that there would be two randomized groups that would each try a different parenting program, one being Play Nicely and the other being Triple P.
Her team’s goal is to see whether these programs are helpful for parents learning how to use positive discipline strategies more frequently. Since they are brief and could be offered in pediatric clinics or other health care and social services settings, these programs have the potential to reach many parents around the country who do not have access to basic parental information.
“The more parents that have those tools, the more likely it is to shift societal norms to use other strategies [of discipline],” Taylor said. “The point is not just whether it is helpful to work with parents … it also propels thinking about changes implemented to protect children at different levels.”
COVID-19 introduced a new set of challenges for the study. Prior to the pandemic, all data was collected from the mothers in person. Due to safety protocols, recent data has been drawn less from in-person encounters.
Taylor’s study has not published its findings yet, but it’s clear that at a larger scale, simply banning the use of physical punishment isn’t enough. Training strategies for positive parenting need to be distributed more broadly.
Effective change needs to come from both pediatricians and professionals that parents trust, as well as at a policy-making level, Taylor said. Nevertheless, an effective first step toward making a change is starting the necessary conversation about what positive parenting looks like. As Taylor’s extensive research has shown, the impacts of parenting and punishment methods are vast and far reaching into a child’s future.
“Positive parenting can include a number of different strategies that can help children, such as setting up a positive learning environment, reinforcing good behavior, setting up rules for children that are aligned with their age and stage of development, and redirecting misbehavior instead of rewarding it,” Taylor said.
Photo Courtesy of Catherine Taylor