April 19, 2021 — Rare is the parent who’s never so much as thought about spanking an unruly child. But a new study provides another reason to avoid corporal punishment: Spanking may cause changes in the same areas of a child’s brain affected by more severe physical and sexual abuse.
Previous research has consistently found links between spanking and behavioral problems, aggression, depression, and anxiety, says Jorge Cuartas, a doctoral candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and first author of the study. “We wanted to look at one potential mechanism, brain development, that might explain how corporal punishment can impact children’s behavior and cognitive development.”
The study, published in Child Development, used functional MRIs to map brain changes in 147 tweens who’d never experienced physical or sexual abuse. Researchers tracked which parts of the children’s brains activated in response to neutral or fearful facial expressions. When shown pictures of someone looking fearful, kids who reported having been spanked had a larger response in certain parts of the brain than kids who hadn’t been. Those areas drive the response to environmental cues, recognizing threats and reacting to them. If a child’s brain overreacts, behavioral challenges can result.
“We saw those changes in the same areas as more severe forms of abuse or domestic violence. It suggests the difference is of degree rather than type,” Cuartas says. As far as a child’s brain is concerned, “It’s all violence.”
It’s a significant finding because many parents don’t think of spanking as being violent, says Vincent J. Palusci, MD, a pediatrician and editor-in-chief of the journal Child Maltreatment. “We want to raise kids who are happy and healthy. And many parents who use spanking are doing it with that goal.”
Spanking in the U.S.
Around the world, 62 states and countries have outlawed corporal punishment. While the U.S. has no such protections, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association have condemned the practice. Acceptance of spanking seems to be shrinking: The percentage of parents in this country who say they spank their children is trending downward. In 1993, 50% of parents surveyed said they did, but by 2017 that number had fallen to 35%. Still far too many, Cuartas and Palusci says, but a promising trend.
“While we wouldn’t as parents want to hurt our kids,” Palusci says, “we need to understand that spanking can be just as bad as things we’d never do.”
Discipline vs. Punishment
For some parents, it may require a shift in thinking, differentiating between discipline and punishment. “Discipline changes behavior — it teaches positive behavior, empathy, essential social skills. But that’s different from punishment,” Cuartas says. “That makes somebody feel pain or shame. We have to start thinking about spanking as punishment.”
That can be difficult, especially for adults who’ve been spanked themselves. They may believe that since they turned out fine, spanking must be fine, too. But the study doesn’t suggest that every child who’s spanked will have these difficulties — it just shows they happen, Cuartas says. “Compare this to smoking. We all know someone who smokes who’s healthy, but that doesn’t mean smoking is good,” he says. “Individual cases aren’t enough to understand whether certain experiences are good or bad.”
Palusci draws parallels to the advice pregnant women receive about taking medications: If it hasn’t been tested in pregnancy specifically, no amount can be considered safe. “We don’t have the studies to say how much spanking is dangerous, so we have to think that any amount has this potential.”