When a parent smacks a child’s hand or swats their butt, they may think they’ve merely “spanked” their child. So it might be surprising to learn that scholars actually refer to these spanks as “corporal punishment.”
Parents might also find it unsettling to learn that some scholars have described spanking as most children’s “first experience of being the victim of a deliberate physical attack.”
Scientists are trying to understand more about childhood spanking and how it affects the brain. Imaging studies are adding new evidence to spanking research and whether it helps or harms a child.
What Is Disciplinary Spanking?
Spanking is generally considered any smack or swat that is meant to physically hurt but not injure a child. There isn’t a standard, agreed-upon definition, so some scholars or organizations might exclude the use of objects (such as a belt or paddle) in the terminology while others allow it.
In 1979, Sweden became the first country to ban spanking children in school and at home. Sixty-five countries have similar bans, but only 14 percent of the world’s children live in a country where they can’t be spanked at school or home; 76 percent of children, including kids in the U.S., have some protections against spanking outside the home; and 10 percent of children worldwide have no protections and can be spanked at home or school. Law enforcement or religious leaders can also physically punish children in these countries.
Is Spanking Effective?
Many adults worldwide use spanking as a disciplinary tool, but researchers don’t see it as an effective strategy for changing long-term behavior.
A 2016 study in the Journal of Family Psychology conducted a meta-analysis of research that measured the impact of childhood spanking on behavior and mental health. The researchers looked at dozens of studies that included more than 160,000 children. They wanted to understand whether spanking was helpful or associated with harmful behaviors in adulthood.
In their analysis, they found that empirical research didn’t support the argument that spanking is effective in helping children improve their behavior. Instead, they saw evidence that spanking was associated with more than a dozen unwanted outcomes in adulthood, including low self-esteem, mental health issues, antisocial behavior and the tendency to blame others for their problems or actions.
How Does Spanking Affect the Brain?
A study published in 2021 in Child Development questioned whether spanking children caused changes to their brains compared to kids who weren’t spanked.
The researchers recruited children who were around 36 months old when the study began. The children underwent an initial assessment and neuroimaging. In the next two years, they were assessed four more times.
The participants underwent a fifth assessment years later when they were between the ages of 10 and 12. During this follow-up, the researchers had the children identify whether they were spanked or experienced other forms of corporal punishment. The research team had to exclude 26 children from the study because they determined they were the victims of physical or sexual abuse. (The research team alerted their local authorities and reported the abuse.)
Of the remaining participants, 40 (22 female) said they were spanked, and 107 (53 female) said they were not spanked. The researchers then used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while the children looked at a computer screen flashing actors’ faces, one at a time.
The researchers wanted to ensure the children were paying attention to the faces, so they asked them to press a button to indicate whether the face was male or female. The faces varied in expression, including some that appeared fearful. What the researchers wanted to know was how their brains responded to the stimulus of a fearful face.
The study’s results indicated that spanking does have an effect on children’s brains. When compared to children who weren’t spanked, the kids who were spanked had a heightened response to the fearful faces. The imaging showed greater activation in “multiple regions of the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex (PRC), including the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial PFC, bilateral frontal pole and left middle frontal gyrus.”
The researchers concluded that spanking possibly changes how the brain perceives environmental threats. This suggests that spanking changes a child’s neural response to emotional cues and makes them more vigilant for potential threats, including emotions that indicate a possible threat.
The study’s authors noted that similar findings have been observed among children who experienced abuse or trauma. This means it’s possible that although spanking might seem less severe, it can have the same long-term impact on how the brain perceives threats.
Should Parents Spank as a Punishment?
Spanking research has increased in the past few decades, and the studies are almost unanimous in finding spanking more harmful than helpful.
Many child psychologists are against spanking and cite studies that find spanking doesn’t change a child’s behavior in the long term. Although a swat on the hand or a smack on the butt might stop a child’s unwanted behavior at the moment, it risks making a child more aggressive in the future.
Rather than spanking a child for undesirable behavior, child psychologists recommend alternative responses. They advise parents to remove privileges like taking away their electronic devices or not giving them Wi-Fi access for a set amount of time. Setting non-physical consequences for a child’s actions can help them consider in the future whether bad behavior is worth the potential loss of something they enjoy.
Child psychologists also recommend time-outs when kids are acting out. And when parents place a child in a time-out or announce they are taking away a privilege, they should explain to the child why their behavior was unwanted and why it needs to be improved. These methods are more involved than a quick smack, but advocates say they will bring better results in the long term.
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