There are pictures of NFL player Adrian Peterson’s preschool sons with facial scars and leg lacerations from his discipline techniques. The latest accusations include a head wound Peterson said occurred while disciplining his 4-year-old for cursing at his sibling. In February 2014, a Kansas lawmaker tried to introduce a bill that would have allowed school teachers to spank up to 10 times. In April 2014, Children’s Mercy Hospital announced that all eight of its locations are “No Hit Zones.” CMH is one of a handful of hospitals across the nation beginning to educate the public about physical punishment (sample of one of their parenting handouts). Then there is Peterson who pushed the topic back in the national spotlight. Check out one ESPN commentator’s emotional statement during a discussion about Peterson’s behavior:
With physical punishment still being a hotly debated topic, many have raised eyebrows, asking, “What’s the big deal?” I’m a normal, down-in-the-trenches mom. If you ask my kids if Mommy’s ever spanked them, they’ll say yes. Unlike parents that regularly use a spoon, switch, belt or hand to “guide,” in those rare moments I’ve resorted to spanking, I felt intense remorse. I felt separation and disconnection from my babies who, when they came out of my body, I wanted to put them back inside to protect them. Being the source of their fear and pain in those moments reminds me of my imperfection. They know that Mom isn’t perfect. They know how to forgive. Our relationship repairs teach my children that, even though we make mistakes, both I and they are lovable and capable of getting back to the “good.”
People react intensely to spanking, saying, “It’s a controversial topic.” But to scientists, it’s not controversial. There’s generally a 15-year lag between research and practicing professionals, and another 15-year lag between clinical practice and the public, putting 30 years – 1 or 2 generations – between research findings and public acceptance. With spanking, we are currently in the second lag time. Across child development professions and legislation, it is well understood that physical punishment limits our ability to develop and learn in a healthy way. Here’s what the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services and the American Humane Association say about it. The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children names 38 countries that have banned it.
The U.S. is not on the list.
To spank a child is to humiliate and hurt a child in order to suppress a child’s maladaptive, distressed behavior, rather than teach prosocial, desirable behaviors. If you want to make choices about what venue to use to educate your children, have a white meat-only diet, teach your kids to cook and do laundry, drive a horse-and-buggy instead of a car, worship in a church or a mosque, be my guest. We all have the right to parent with our own preferences, but physical violence is a non-negotiable and does not fall into the category of “I’ll do what I want.” Neuroscientists call the flooding of fear a stress “brain bath.” This CNN article compiles studies showing that spanking changes the developmental trajectories of the brain, correlating decreased amounts of gray matter in the brain with children who are regularly spanked.
It’s the same basic process that happens when a sabertooth tiger chases us in the jungle.
- A stronger, faster, larger person comes at a child with force.
- The amygdala, an almond-shaped organ and the threat-detector of the brain, fires a message, “I’m not safe!” It activates the Fight/Flight/Freeze System.
- Cortisol (the “stress hormone”) is produced in high quantities from the adrenal glands. A colleague of mine calls it “pouring diluted Clorox on the brain.” The only way to significantly eliminate cortisol from the body, other than preventing its production in the first place, is through emotional tears (which parents often suppress with, “quit your crying!”) and sweat from physical exertion (think of the exertion of running away from a bear or lifting a burning car off of a loved one).
- The sympathetic nervous system takes over the body. Reproductive and digestive systems become slack (sometimes resulting in a child peeing or pooping their pants), pupils dilate, heart rate increases … you get the idea.
- Cortisol triggers neurotransmitter spikes: dopamine, glutamate, adrenaline, noradrenaline. When dopamine levels are too high/low, we see impulsivity, inability to focus, and an absence of learning. High glutamate levels are associated with aggressiveness. Boys are vulnerable, as they tend to externalize their emotions physically and get into even more trouble, increasing the risk of being spanked again. Girls tend to internalize with shame and low self-esteem.
- Fear shuts down the hippocampus, responsible for memory processing, so often the child will have no memory of why they were spanked.
- Blood flow to the prefrontal cortex decreases, particularly the left hemisphere, the part of the brain responsible for reason, cause-effect associations, chronological organization, verbal skills, speech production, learning and memory. If you ask a child to speak to you while you’re disciplining them harshly, they will often not be able to speak or recall clearly with their verbal skills. If you’ve asked your child to recall why they’re in trouble, ever heard a whiny, drawling, “I don’t knoooooooow …”?
Some might say, “Well, it works. I get compliance from my child.” That depends how you measure success. Because of the physical domino effect of stress to the child above, physical punishment is correlated later in life with increased cancer, diabetes, obesity, suicide, heart disease, smoking, mental illness, relationship problems, substance abuse. (Look here, here, here, here.) It works because your child is afraid, but the long term physical and emotional damage is done and gives your child a reason to want to avoid you. Some might say, “Well, I am against spanking, but in extreme circumstances, like when a child is about to run out into the street, it’s appropriate to startle the child to show the magnitude of the situation.” The brain reacts to the shock with the steps above, and in extreme circumstances, you certainly want them to have optimal brain function to learn danger. All the child will remember is that they got spanked, and you did it.
Physical punishment by a caregiver creates a fusion between love and pain, and we wonder as a society why bullying and un-empathetic kids are an issue, why cutting among teens has become a culture or why we have so much difficulty with dating, marriage, divorce and love. If you spank as a method (as opposed to “spanking out of anger”), perhaps the science of spanking will help you reconsider because premeditated spanking is premeditated neurological abuse – you may not see bruises and lacerations, but a child’s brain, internal systems, and relationships pay a steep long-term price. If you have time to think about it beforehand, then you also have time to read and learn. Before commenting on this post, I challenge you to read the 30 years of research, with an overwhelming 93% agreement among studies that physical punishment leads to negative outcomes.
Spanking is an adult self-regulation and expression problem. If you believe you are calm when you spank, consider this: if you were hooked up to bio-monitors while spanking your child, even if you were calm to begin with, the bio-monitors would show spikes in your own cortisol, sympathetic nervous system reactions, and excitatory neurotransmitters as a result of your engaging in aggression. Spanking is not healthy for your child’s brain, but it’s not healthy for yours, either. For those of you who want to use other methods, but think you might resort to spanking:
- Check out the Research and Resources available online.
- Examine your own ability to name negative emotions, thus regulating your temper. When you model self-regulation and appropriate expressions of anger, you model these skills to your children, called vicarious learning.
- Try self-care through venting sessions with a counselor or massage, which decreases cortisol production and increases empathy.
- Take a look at how you were parented. Perhaps you are an adult who developed in spite of your parents’ physical punishments or humiliations. Here’s the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Scale used by professionals.
No matter how you were parented as a child or what your personal beliefs on this topic might be, please don’t ignore the science behind what continuing this pattern with your child will mean for years to come.