For enquiries about The POLICY RESEARCH BUREAU's past work,

A National Study of Parents, Children and Discipline

A joint study by the Policy Research Bureau, the NSPCC and the National Centre For Social Research


This joint study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of their Violence Research Programme. It explored parents’ and children’s behaviours, beliefs and attitudes in relation to conflict and discipline in the home.

What did the research focus on?

This project aimed to conduct the first methodologically rigorous national survey of parents, children and discipline in Britain. It provided normative data on the incidence of a range of disciplinary tactics used by parents, including the different manifestations of physical force. The study explored the contexts in which conflicts arise, the situations parents find most difficult to manage or most challenging, and the background stresses which may have contributed to these situations. Community definitions of what constitutes ‘legitimate’ as opposed to ‘illegitimate’ use of physical force by parents were explored with both parents and children, in the context of beliefs on the effectiveness, acceptability and appropriateness of a range of disciplinary tactics. The study explored parents’ own childhood experiences and attributions to test theoretical models of family conflict including intergenerational transmission.

Findings from the research are intended to set a normative context against which judgements about ‘illegitimate’ or ‘abusive’ parental behaviour can be made. The information will be of benefit to policy makers by illuminating the areas where parents might benefit from support and guidance, and identifying the stresses and behaviours most likely to lead to harsh and ineffective parenting. This will assist policy makers in mounting public education campaigns to combat abusive behaviour, and practitioners in advising the public on effective parenting. Most importantly, knowledge of children’s perspectives will improve the ability of adults to be sensitive to children’s needs and concerns.

What did the research involve?

The study used both survey and qualitative methods. The first stage comprised a national survey with a representative probability sample of 1,200 parents in Britain with children aged 0 - 12 years. Computer Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI) was used alongside Computer Assisted Self Interviewing (CASI) for the most sensitive areas of the interview. The study developed research instruments to provide the first ever robust baseline data on the incidence of a wide range of parental disciplinary tactics used in British homes, including those involving physical force.

The survey was followed by a second, qualitative phase. Depth interviews were conducted with parents who took part in the survey stage, chosen to represent the range of different parenting styles. The team also separately interviewed the children of these parents. In addition the research team conducted group discussions with children aged 7 - 12 from across Britain. Topics covered included: their views on the acceptability and effectiveness of different disciplinary tactics; how context impacted upon this; and children’s views on their rights within the family.

Timescale and final products of the research

The study began in June 1998 and fieldwork finished in Spring 2001. A book is currently in preparation. A summary of selected key findings can be found in our publications section.

Ghate D, Hazel N, Creighton S, Finch S, and Field J (2003) The National Study of Parents, Children and Discipline in Britain: Summary of Key Findings. London: Policy Research Bureau

See Publications for further details.

Last updated March 2007