How Spanking Harms the Brain
Why spanking should be outlawed.
Posted February 12, 2012 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
Spanking erodes developmental growth in children and decreases a child's IQ, a recent Canadian study shows.
This analysis, conducted at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, offers new evidence that corporal punishment causes cognitive impairment and long-term developmental difficulties.
Debates around physical punishment typically revolve around the ethics of using violence to enforce discipline. This inquiry synthesized 20 years of published research on the topic and aims to "shift the ethical debate over corporal punishment into the medical sphere," says Joan Durant, a professor at the University of Manitoba and one of the authors of the study.
According to the report, spanking may reduce the brain's grey matter, the connective tissue between brain cells. Grey matter is an integral part of the central nervous system and influences intelligence testing and learning abilities. It includes areas of the brain involved in sensory perception, speech, muscular control, emotions, and memory. Additional research supports the hypothesis that children and adolescents subjected to child abuse and neglect have less grey matter than children who have not been ill-treated.
Medical professionals investigating the long-term effects of spanking have consistently found a link between corporal punishment and increased aggression in children. Such "educational" discipline correlates to higher levels of acting out in school and trouble in academic performance. It predicts vulnerability to depression, typically in girls, and antisocial tendencies usually manifest in boys.
Boys are spanked more than girls. Physical punishment most frequently occurs at the toddler or preschooler age. Parents of lower income and with less formal education spank more often. Religious conservatives tend to favor corporeal punishment, though not always the case. The King James version of the Bible, Proverbs: 13:24, expresses the sentiment "spare the rod and spoil the child" in antiquated language: He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
Spanking gets quick results, but it doesn't reduce the undesired behavior. In addition to detrimental physiological effects, it may also inflict lasting emotional damage that inhibits the learning process. Physical punishment undermines trust between parent and child and breeds hostility toward authority figures. Being hit may subsequently hinder social relations in the classroom where there is a power differential between teacher and child. It is any wonder when hitting sends the signal to a child that learning occurs through punishment? This form of discipline pretends to be educational but is actually a way for parents to vent their own anger. Spanking involves the learned misrecognition of injury as education. Figures of cultural authority, such as parents and teachers, may be construed as purveyors of sadism rather than knowledge. Corporal punishment undermines compassion for others, for oneself, and limits the mutual capacity for gaining insight.
In 1979, Sweden became the first country to outlaw the physical punishment of children. Since then, more that 30 other countries have banned corporal punishment at home and in schools. Yet it remains legal for a parent to spank their child in the United States. Part of the difficulty in changing the cultural attitude that corporal punishment is an effective means of discipline is that many view prohibiting spanking as limiting the rights of parents. Here, the underlying assumption is that children remain the property of adults and should serve their parents' egos.
In the United States, spanking has declined since the civil rights movements of the 1960s. Most parents who use physical punishment today express regret for it and scant belief that it improves a child's behavior. More effective means of teaching discipline are: giving time-outs, choices, and non-violent consequences for misbehavior. These include logical consequences ("if you do not pick up your toys, they will not be available tomorrow") and natural consequences ("if you do not put on your coat, you will be cold").
Parents who administer corporal punishment were often on the receiving end of it themselves. In other words, the cause of this form of "educational" violence are often hidden in the repressed history of the parents. When adults do not understand the connections between their previous experiences of injury and those they actively repeat in the present, they perpetuate a destructive cycle and inflict their own suffering on their offspring. The next generation continues to carry the damage that has been stored up in the mind and body of their ancestor. Conversely, parents can also work to become consciously aware of their own childhood pain and recognize how they transmit historical violence to their children by hitting.
The effective teaching of discipline may have the potential to lessen the overall levels of violence in our society. In other words, corporal punishment, of which spanking is a relatively minor form, can have larger social implications. Some studies suggest a connection between the physical punishment of children and the behavior involved in some criminal assaults.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and The American Psychological Association oppose striking a child or adolescent for any reason. Regarding how a parent can best handle an incident of spanking in the moment of regret after it has occurred, The American Academy of Pediatrics advises:
Parents should explain calmly why they did it, the specific behavior that provoked it, and how angry they felt. They also might apologize to their child for their loss of control. This usually helps the youngster to understand and accept the spanking, and it models for the child how to remediate a wrong.
What do we want to teach our children? Spanking teaches kids that hitting is an acceptable response to anger. Showing the next generation how to manage rage without violence is a critical life skill.
The original article can be accessed through a subscription to the Canadian Medical Association Journal.
*SpankOut Day USA, officially April 30th, was inaugurated in 1998 to educate about the societal need to end corporal punishment and promote non-violent ways of teaching discipline.