It’s long been accepted as normal, even necessary, but research indicates it is ineffective and possibly damaging. What is your opinion on spanking?
I grew up on stories of kids being spanked. Sometimes it was treated with humor, like the boy whose father told him to “prepare for a spanking” only to find that he’d prepared by donning every item of clothing that would fit over his rear end. Sometimes it was treated as shameful, something to be hidden even if it meant sitting on a sore bottom without wincing so that none of your peers would know you’d been bad.
But always, it was treated as normal.
So when studies began to surface that linked physical punishment to impaired memory and learning abilities and even to developmental damage in the physical brain, specifically in the prefrontal cortex, I was interested in seeing how it aligned with my own personal theories, which are that corporal punishment is not only ineffective (which we’ve known for some time) but also damaging.
I am certainly not in the majority, at least not gauging by the comments I read on articles like this one from CNN or on social media posts (which is anecdotal but also mildly discouraging.) In a panel discussion with sports personalities following the Adrian Peterson news I heard more than one player crediting the spankings they’d gotten as children with the discipline they used to achieve success in their career. We’ve all heard someone say, “That kid needs a good spanking.” And we’ve probably all heard someone try to define the razor’s edge between a spanking and abuse.
On this site we invite discussions about parenting, about abuse, and about fostering healthy societies. So when the CNN story was shared in our GMP Writer’s Forum, I asked my fellow writers at The Good Men Project to weigh in with their own opinions and experiences.
Several of our writers are, like myself, survivors of abuse. Their reference points are not of spankings, but of beatings. Jasmin Newman, who coaches men around issues with relationships and sexuality, has seen the devastating effects of parental abuse in others, shared her greatest ah-ha moment from reading the CNN article.
“For many years I accepted my childhood spankings as just something that happened. I have very few positive memories from my childhood. Almost everything I remember was painful or hurtful. When I became aware that my primary defense in life was to attack, I realized what the impact had been on me. What I found really fascinating about this article was the relation to cognitive ability. Once I let go of the trauma of abuse a few years ago, my ability to learn and absorb grew exponentially.”
Hilary Lauren, who writes about relationships and parenting, says she found it impossible to read the article with as little bias as she’d like because her father was “Mt. Vesuvius” who told her he saw “people as objects to be destroyed” when he was angry. However, she also shared frankly that this research has changed her viewpoint on spanking.
“Parents who take the stance spanking is okay may get on the defensive when someone tells them it is wrong. When there is a substantiated reason not to do it, I think it makes a person stop. It’s hard to argue with facts. I was the occasional spanker with my kids — for dangerous behavior which scared me — and I do think a large majority of parents who spank do so out of fear. Fear drives us to take so many actions to regain perceived control: yelling, threatening discipline, spanking. Had I known about the connection in this article, I would not have laid a palm on my kid’s backside. I have noted when I punished out of anger, my oldest son in particular felt unfairly treated. Natural consequences are a far better teacher of the benefits of behaving.”
Darren Mattock, founder at “Becoming Dad,” laid himself bare, but what he shared adds not only perspective, but hope.
“I grew up with domestic violence and being spanked/hit. I am survivor of two serious suicide attempts (ages 15 and 22). I was gifted a son when I became a dad. My way as a parent and father has been to influence my son through connection and mutual empathy. I have found it incredibly healing for me to break the cycle of violence. I see this issue and cultural habit as a reflection of human disconnection – from ourselves (our own wounds and a general lack of self awareness) and one and other (empathy, human nature). It is amazing having the discipline discussion with expectant fathers. It is an edgy place to go for many. In my experience, most are in place of not knowing what they don’t know. So subconsciously and superficially shape their view of the father they’re going to be based on their already formed perspective on the issue, which often means repeating cycles. I have, however, had incredible experiences being part of groups where men have tapped into a new level of awareness around it, been open to touching their own wound and begun the process of consciously engaging with their thoughts, feelings and intentions in relation to how they will approach discipline as a father.
It has also been my experience that many fathers who had experiences as children like mine are highly motivated and committed to breaking the cycle in a very conscious way. The documentary ‘Absent’ makes reference to ‘the pact’ that men make not to be absent fathers. Many make the same kind of pact not to be abusive fathers. It is foundational to their identity as a father.”
Some of our writers don’t remember being abused, and rarely spanked. Doug Wagner, entrepreneur, CEO, and business writer, does believe it taught him one thing.
“I wasn’t spanked harshly or often. Yet I can still remember each of the three times I got the strap in school and the few times I was spanked or otherwise subject to physical force. I don’t remember much in the way of specific times of affection. I did learn to get better at not getting caught. That article explains a lot.”
Chris Hicke, who writes on politics and social issues, seems to have been blessed with deductive reasoning skills at a very early age.
“I got my parents to stop spanking me when I was 2. Didn’t understand why they’d hit me and not the children my mom was babysitting at the time. Since she couldn’t come up with a good reason, she stopped. If your actions fall apart under the logic of a 2yr old, you’ve got some issues.”
Rob Watson, who is one of our Dad’s and Family editors, says he just found it dumb.
“As I grew up, my parents had a spanking policy. I rarely got one but when I did I thought it was an absolutely stupid exercise. My parents never spanked when they were emotional or angry , which is good, so for me it was… here is this parent I trust hitting my ass as almost a ritual. Dumb. As a parent myself, I have found many other consequence based ramifications much more effective. And I have noticed that my own inclinations to spank are out of my own frustration feelings, not because it is best for them. That ,in my book is an unacceptable reason to do it…for my emotions. I also cannot fathom the logic of teaching children with violence to be non-violent. Likewise I don’t scream at my kids…when I am really angry, I call them over and whisper. Makes them attentive and compliant immediately.”
Most of our writers dismissed physical punishment as ineffective, or inherently abusive.
Jonathan Reed, who writes on gender issues, diversity, and acceptance, summed it up.
“It’s well-known in the education/psychology fields that negative punishment is a lot less effective than positive reinforcement. Kids tend to remember the punishment itself, not the behavior that caused the reaction. Therefore behavior doesn’t change.”
Edie Weinstein, a licensed social worker who has three decades of experience counseling with abuse and trauma survivors, considers spanking to be ineffective and damaging.
“Hitting teaches fear and not respect. It teaches that a bigger and stronger person can control a smaller and weaker person. I respected my parents out of love not fear. They didn’t lay a hand on me in anger or for the purpose or punishment. Would the parents who justify hitting their child want that child to hit someone else?
What I ask people who have been treated this way by people who claim to love them, ‘If what was done to you was done to an adult stranger, could that person press assault charges?’ If the answer is yes, then it is abuse/assault. And then I ask “If what was done to you was done by the one who hit you, to a neighbor’s child, would it be considered assault as well and could those parents press charges?” If the answer is yes, then it is abuse.”
Vern Hyndman, who works with the non-profit HeartForge, suggests parents think about that phrase, “last resort.”
“If spanking is a last resort, then when you’re about to spank your child, pause for a moment and consider that you have just reached the limit of your parenting ability.”
Douglas Thompson, also a mental health counselor, proposes parents ask a simple question.
“”What would you do if a stranger did that to your child?’ If your answer is, ‘I’d lose it,’ then what gives you the right to do it yourself? I believe that as parents, we are meant to protect our children. Sometimes that means looking inward.”
Mark Greene, one of our Executive Editors and author of the newly released Remaking Manhood, didn’t mince words.
“For me, this is simple. If you think an adult hitting a child is okay, then, despite what you say, being spanked as a kid really did mess you up.”
Luke Davis, a dancer and poet as well as a father and computer nerd, shared his own frustrations.
“My daughter has had probably had two light slapped wrists in her entire life. My son is about as stubborn as I was when I was a kid. As a parent you do try everything you can think of first before spanking. I had read parenting books I knew different ways of disciplining but simply they didn’t work on my son.”
For myself, I have not raised children (unless you count furry ones) and I cannot reference my own experiences to find a balanced view. But I have spent the last twenty years working with entrepreneurs and their teams, studying interpersonal dynamics, brain function, and the power of the mind, and there are three aspects of the current research I think are vital to answering the question about whether or not spanking is an effective, or appropriate, method for raising happy, productive, and fulfilled people.
One – It is not effective.
Dr. Alan Kazdin, as quoted in a featured article on the American Psychological Association’s site, sums up the answer to the question of effectiveness rather well.
“You cannot punish out these behaviors that you do not want. There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work.”
Two – It’s counter-productive.
A study published in the journal Pediatrics and summarized as part of an article in Advocate Health Care’s EHeath News, pretty clearly supports the position that hitting a child, even mildly and without anger, resulted in higher rule breaking and aggressive behavior. One of the co-authors of the study, Michael Mackenzie, added this persuasive argument against spanking.
“We found there were impacts not just on the behavioral development that folks normally look at, but also on markers of cognitive development, like the verbal capacity of the child. These effects are long-lasting. They aren’t just short-term problems that wash out over time.”
Three – It’s clinically damaging to the development of the brain.
Finally, the study referenced in the CNN article dealt with what they termed “harsh corporal punishment.” More than 1,400 adults were involved in the study, and the findings indicated that spanking can affect the development and composition of the physical brain.
A significant reduction in gray matter volume was noted in the prefrontal cortex. When you think about the development and function of this part of our brains the implications become truly frightening.
The prefrontal cortex is the last stage of the brain to mature, it’s development normally isn’t complete until the mid-twenties. That means that the full impact of early childhood punishment might not be fully apparent until we’re adults.
The prefrontal cortex is often referred to as “the seat of good judgment.” It’s the part of the brain that controls our emotional and impulsive responses and inhibits inappropriate or unwise behavior. It’s linked to cognitive function and learning retention.
So it seems reasonable to suppose that, by continuing to accept spanking as a “normal” form of behavioral correction, we are not only fostering a mindset that hitting is appropriate or that not getting caught is more important than not doing wrong, and we aren’t just risking cognitive performance, we’re also putting our children at risk for long term damage to the very part of their brains that they need to be able to use to control the behavior we’re trying to correct.
I’m thankful to our team of writers and thinkers, because, as Stephen King says, “Writing is refined thinking,” for being willing to tackle this difficult topic, and share their opinions and experiences so openly and succinctly.
Because, if we can’t talk about it, we can’t change it. And I do believe this is something we need to change.
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Photo: Flickr/Boston Public Library