I spend a huge amount of time reading studies and scientific articles about parenting and I’ve always been a bit suspicious of studies about the percentage of parents who spank their kids. The numbers always seemed too low. After all, who in their right mind would spank a child in front of a bunch of scientists who are going to write an article about you? And even in a survey without witnesses—how many people are honestly going to admit that they smack their kids?

As it turns out, Michigan State University psychologist Kathy Stansbury had the same questions and decided to put them to the test. So she and her grad students went out and secretly observed 106 discipline interactions between children ages 3-5 and their caregivers in public places like parks and restaurants. (The researchers assumed they were watching parents with their children, but because the people being observed weren’t told they were being observed, they couldn’t be 100 percent sure.)

They found that when the kids misbehaved and failed to respond to the adults request, 23 percent of the grown ups gave the children some kind of “negative touch,” which includes arm pulling, pinching, slapping or spanking. “I was very surprised to see what many people consider a socially undesirable behavior done by nearly a quarter of the caregivers,” Stansbury said. “I have also seen hundreds of kids and their parents in a lab setting and never once witnessed any of this behavior.”

In addition to the 23 of interactions that involved negative touch, 33 percent involved positive touch, and in 38 percent of the interactions, there was not touching at all. Interestingly, male caregivers used touch equally for boys and girls, but females were more likely to use negative touch with boys and positive with girls.

Even more interesting was the discovery that, contrary to the old “wait-til-your-father-comes-home” stereotype of dads being the iron-willed disciplinarians, when male caregivers did touch their kids, it was more likely to be positive than negative. Positive touch included hugging, tickling and patting. “When we think of Dad, we think of him being the disciplinarian, and Mom as nurturer, but that’s just not what we saw,” Stansbury said.

Ultimately, 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, she said.

“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.”

The results of the study were just published in the August issue of the journal Behavior and Social Issues.