Like many gen-Xers, I was spanked as a kid. Not a lot, and not hard. My parents always followed up a spanking with a calm talk reiterating the behavior that had earned me a spanking. Everyone in my extended family, and it seemed everyone I knew, was part of a family that operated similarly. Actually, a few of my friends received what would more rightly be called “beatings” when they misbehaved. So I viewed my parents’ calm, methodical approach to spanking as a reasonable manner in which to dole out punishment. I grew up believing that sometimes a spanking was necessary to “get through” to a kid.
When I was pregnant, and when my now-15-year-old son was still a baby, I read parenting books that suggested alternative methods for discipline besides spanking. But I was so deeply invested in the idea that spanking was necessary, I practically rolled my eyes at that advice. I think part of me assumed that experts had to be careful not to recommend that people hit their kids, because some people may not be able to distinguish the difference between methodical disciplinary spankings that my parents gave me and beatings, which would be physical abuse.
The thing is, the latest research tells us that as far as a child’s developing brain is concerned, there is little difference between disciplinary spankings and legit abuse. Dr. Han Ren, licensed psychologist and school psychologist, recently spoke with Buzzfeed about the latest Harvard study on spanking.
“Spanking changes how a kid’s brain develops from a very young age,” Dr. Ren told Krista Torres of Buzzfeed. “And it makes their brain look more like the brains of kids who have been severely abused.”
The Harvard study looked at a group of children around the ages of 10 and 11 — some who had been spanked (ranging from frequent to infrequent) and some who had never been spanked. The study excluded children who had experienced more severe abuse, but researchers still had other data available to them so they could compare brain scan results. Each child was placed in an MRI machine where they were shown images of actors making “fearful” and “neutral” faces. The MRA machine recorded their brain response.
When researchers analyzed the results, they found that all children had an “increase in brain activation” when shown fearful faces as opposed to neutral faces. They expected that. But researchers also found that, compared to the non-spanked kids, the children who had been spanked demonstrated a greater reaction to fearful faces, and less reaction to neutral faces. And the more concerning finding: Dr. Ren said, “When they looked at the results of the spanked population of kids compared to the existing images and data from abused children, they found that there weren’t many differences in terms of the prefrontal cortex activation.”
In other words, even occasional spanking can lead to the same kinds of reactions in the brain that abused children experience.
When my son was emerging from toddlerhood and showing clear signs of ADHD, I had already begun to doubt that spankings could help him. It was becoming more and more obvious to me that his behavior was not a result of obstinacy or defiance, or even poor decision making. He had a problem with impulse control — literally, he simply could not control his impulses. How do you punish that? How do you justify hitting a kid for something they can’t control?
And what would it do to his little personality to keep trying to smack the ADHD out of him? I rarely spanked him, and not hard — I modeled my spanking after my parents’ method — but was it actually doing anything to shape him into the kind of person I hoped he would become? I stopped spanking him altogether and found alternative methods of discipline: time-outs (which I’ve since learned can also be harmful if done in a shame-inducing way), token economies, therapy, meditation, medication, and lots and lots and lots of talking and reasoning.
Dr. Ren also spoke extensively about the other long-acknowledged negative outcomes of using spanking as a standard form of discipline. “There’s so many ways that spanking negatively affects children,” she said in her Buzzfeed interview. “They’re less likely to trust their caregivers, they’re more likely to be sneaky about their misbehaviors and hide their problems from their caregivers when they’re older because they don’t want to get in trouble or get punished. They’re more likely to change their behavior based on not getting punished rather than understanding the impacts of their actions on others.”
I found this to be true for my son. I simply did not see him learning the lessons I hoped to teach him. Rather I saw him developing fear-based avoidance tactics — becoming more creative about avoiding getting caught.
For many people who spank their kids, spanking is intergenerational, and sometimes it’s even viewed as part of their culture. In response to this idea, Dr. Ren says, “I think we confuse what’s cultural with what’s generational trauma because it’s something that was used on our people. These are communities that have been enslaved and oppressed and colonized. It was the most common method of keeping people in line, and that gets passed down through the body, through generations. So we confuse it, thinking it’s culture.”
My children’s father is Peruvian and also grew up with spanking, though a harsher version of it than what I experienced. His mom has since said she wished she hadn’t spanked her kids though, and doesn’t want her grandchildren to be spanked. Dr. Ren says, “Just because this happened to us, that doesn’t mean we need to repeat it to our kids. It’s not culture. It’s trauma. And it’s a lot more rampant in communities of color because of global systems of oppression.”
For me, growing up in a very white Christian-based culture, spanking was completely normalized, and for many who remain entrenched in that culture, it still is. The colonizers spank too — often, their religion explicitly requires that they do.
For most parents, the goal in spanking is not to gain some perverse enjoyment from hitting their kids. More often than not, parents are doing the best they can with the tools they grew up with, trying to shape their kids into productive members of society the way they themselves were taught.
The good thing is, it’s never too late to pivot and make more informed choices as parents. I stopped spanking my son and it completely changed how I relate to him. I am 100% confident our relationship is better for it and that his decision-making and reasoning skills are more developed than they would have been had I continued to rely on spanking as a method of discipline. And now we have further scientific evidence that not only is spanking ineffective, but it can also damage children’s brains.
As Dr. Ren said, “Knowing that even mild spanking can lead possibly to a brain fundamental structural response pattern that looks like an abused kid? Why do it? It’s not worth it.”