Spanking is not a thing of the past. If you are working in a classroom, you most likely have direct experience of this reality. Most of us have students who are spanked.
Many of us also remember being spanked when we were children or have spanked our own children. In fact, about half of parents in the US report that they have spanked their child (under age 9) within the last year (Finkelhor et al., 2019).
In research terms, spanking is called corporal punishment. Corporal punishment happens when someone intentionally causes physical harm (even mild) to someone else in order to give them negative feedback (to punish them for bad behavior).
In the United States, "mild" corporal punishment is completely legal if it happens at home. In care settings like schools, it is against the law in only 31 states (Global Initiative to End Corporal Punishment of Children, 2020).
While spanking is often seen as socially acceptable, new research suggests that even mild corporal punishment in childhood may have negative long-term consequences for brain development. Read on for details.
In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics (Sege et al., 2018) issued a policy statement saying that corporal punishment results in "negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children." This statement was based on a review of all quality research available as of 2018. Surprisingly, there is a significant lack of research on how and to what extent mild corporal punishment (aka spanking) influences brain development.
In April of 2021, the first paper specifically looking at this topic was published. Cuartes and colleagues used brain imaging to see how the brains of children who had been spanked (but not "abused") handled fear. They found that spanking leads to alterations in some of the same brain areas that are associated with physical abuse. Typically, the affected brain regions help us to make decisions, respond to important cues from the environment, and process what's happening in a given situation. When discussing these findings, Katie McLaughlin (one of the study researchers) reported that:
“while we might not conceptualize corporal punishment to be a form of violence, in terms of how a child’s brain responds, it’s not all that different than abuse. It’s more a difference of degree than of type.” (Aggarwal-Schifellite, 2021).
Shifting our ways
If you use corporal punishment, don't panic. You can change your practices right now and learn a new way. Your children are also resilient. When they are exposed to new circumstances, their brains will forge new pathways. Remember that the brain can change at all stages of life. So, just start where you are. Think ahead and come up with a different plan for how you will respond the next time a situation arises where corporal punishment would have been your go to response.
You can also speak with your children and let them know that you learned that there are better ways to teach them what they need to know than spanking. You can even say that a group of doctors got together and studied this question. They found that spanking isn't really effective and it is not good for the brain. Then, tell them your new plan. For example, say, "The next time this happens, you're going to have a time out." Or, for an older child, explain how they will be held accountable. For example, "The next time you lie, you'll need to write a letter of apology to the person you lied to and do one of their chores to make it up to them."
Working with Families
But how do we speak with families about this? The first thing to remember is not to trigger an acute stress response in whoever we are speaking with. When we feel threatened, our brain activity tends to move out of our higher thinking areas (prefrontal cortex) and into our stress-response areas (limbic system) (Arnsten, 2015). So, if a parent feels threatened, their brain may not be able to intelligently consider what you are about to say. Instead, they'll jump into fight or flight mode.
So, whenever we approach a parent/caregiver, we first have to wipe all traces of judgment out of our minds. Judgement in this context is different from discernment. Being non-judgmental does not mean we can not discern the difference between safe and unsafe behavior. If a child is in clear physical danger, our obligation is to help them and fast. But, in general, we are not here to approve or condemn anyone. We are here to help.
Key Facts to Share
The best bet with families is to cover this topic at one of your first meetings, before you have any reason to suspect that they may be using corporal punishment. This means you have a neutral, open relationship; since you don't know each other yet, you can't be speaking directly to them or accusing them in anyway, right?
If you already have a relationship with your families, present this information in a large group with lots of people present. You want it clear that you are not trying to shame or "call out" any one in particular; you're just sharing useful information.
Here's an example of what you might put on your corporal punishment slide.
I wrote a separate blog post on preschool orientation and filmed one session (see below). You can use this as an example for your own sessions if it helps. The video was filmed in 2015, before the information I'm writing about now was published. So, the next time I give this talk, I will:
- Hand out the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations
- Add in a slide with the picture of the stressed out brain from the Arnsten 2015 study (see picture above)
- Add a slide about corporal punishment (see above)
I hope this helps!
Please join the conversation and add your thoughts, experience, and suggestions below. Your voice actually does matter.
Aggarwal-Schifellite, M. (2021 April 12). How spanking may affect brain development in children. The Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2021/04/spanking-children-may-impair-their-brain-development/
Arnsten, A. F. (2015). Stress weakens prefrontal networks: molecular insults to higher cognition. Nature Neuroscience, 18(10), 1376. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4816215/
Cuartas, J., Weissman, D. G., Sheridan, M. A., Lengua, L., & McLaughlin, K. A. (2021). Corporal punishment and elevated neural response to threat in children. Child Development. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.13565
Finkelhor, D., Turner, H., Wormuth, B. K., Vanderminden, J., & Hamby, S. (2019). Corporal punishment: Current rates from a national survey. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 28, 1991–1997. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10826‐019‐01426‐4
Gershoff, E. T. (2016). Should parents' physical punishment of children be considered a source of toxic stress that affects brain development? Family Relations, 65, 151–162. https://doi.org/10.1111/fare.12177
Gershoff, E. T., & Grogan-Kaylor, A. (2016). Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses. Journal of Family Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/fam0000191
Global Initiative to End Corporal Punishment of Children. (2020 February). Progress towards prohibiting all corporal punishment in North America. http://endcorporalpunishment.org/wp-content/uploads/legality-tables/North-America-progress-table-alphabetical.pdf
Liu, L., & Wang, M. (2020). Parental corporal punishment and child anxiety in China: The moderating role of HPA-axis Activity. Journal of Affective Disorders, 273, 500-507.
Ryan, R., Kalil, A., Ziol‐Guest, K., & Padilla, C. (2016). Socioeconomic gaps in parent's discipline strategies from 1998 to 2011. Pediatrics, 138. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2016‐0720