Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Spanking the gray matter out of our kids

By Sarah Kovac, Special to CNN
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
The more you physically punish your children for their lack of self-control, the less they have, Sarah Kovac says.
The more you physically punish your children for their lack of self-control, the less they have, Sarah Kovac says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Spanking or other forms of corporal punishment can alter children's brains, research shows
  • Kids who were regularly spanked had less gray matter in prefrontal cortexes, studies say
  • These areas of the brain have been linked to depression, addiction

Editor's note: Sarah Kovac is a motivational speaker and author of "In Capable Arms: Living a Life Embraced by Grace." The opinions expressed are solely the author's.

(CNN) -- How to discipline the next generation is a hotly debated topic. In 2012, a national survey showed more than half of women and three-quarters of men in the United States believe a child sometimes needs a "good hard spanking."

Science tells a different story. Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain -- not only in an "I'm traumatized" kind of way but also in an "I literally have less gray matter in my brain" kind of way.

"Exposing children to HCP (harsh corporal punishment) may have detrimental effects on trajectories of brain development," one 2009 study concluded.

Harsh corporal punishment in the study was defined as at least one spanking a month for more than three years, frequently done with objects such as a belt or paddle. Researchers found children who were regularly spanked had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex that have been linked to depression, addiction and other mental health disorders, the study authors say.

The researchers also found "significant correlations" between the amount of gray matter in these brain regions and the children's performance on an IQ test.

Kansas lawmaker pushes spanking bill
Study: Spanking may cause mental issues
Does corporal punishment work?

Several other studies support these findings. A 2010 study published in Pediatrics found that frequent -- more than twice in the previous month -- spanking when a child was 3 was linked to an increased risk for higher levels of child aggression when the child was 5.

Another, from the Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma, found that corporal punishment doled out from the mother was independently related to a decrease in cognitive ability relative to other children. Corporal punishment had the largest effect on children 5 to 9.

Behind all this science-speak is the sobering fact that corporal punishment is damaging to children. That gray matter we've been spanking out of them? It's the key to the brain's ability to learn self-control.

"The more gray matter you have in the decision-making, thought-processing part of your brain (the prefrontal cortex), the better your ability to evaluate rewards and consequences," write the authors of a 2011 study that appeared in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.

The sad irony is that the more you physically punish your kids for their lack of self-control, the less they have. They learn how to be controlled by external forces (parents, teachers, bosses), but when the boss isn't looking, then what?

Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, has been studying corporal punishment for 15 years, and is known as the leading researcher on spanking in the United States today. Over the years, Gershoff has done a systematic review of the hundreds of studies on the effects of corporal punishment.

"There's no study that I've ever done that's found a positive consequence of spanking," Gershoff said. "Most of us will stop what we're doing if somebody hits us, but that doesn't mean we've learned why somebody hit us, or what we should be doing instead, which is the real motive behind discipline."

Initially it was believed that spanking, at the very least, was associated with immediate compliance in children, and that parental warmth would buffer any harmful effects.

But the finding that spanking produced compliance "was overly influenced by one study," Gershoff said; it turns out spanking "doesn't make your kids better behaved. You think it does. ... It doesn't."

What is spanking associated with? Aggression. Delinquency. Mental health problems. And something called "hostile attribution bias," which causes children, essentially, to expect people to be mean to them.

This bias makes the world feel especially hostile. In turn, children are on edge and ready to be hostile back. Over time, across cultures and ethnicities, the findings are consistent: Spanking is doing real, measurable damage to the brains of our children.

And yet in 19 states, Gershoff notes, it is still legal for schools to paddle children.

For those thinking, "I was spanked, and I turned out fine," or, "I spank my kids and they're great!" consider that you don't know who you would be or how your children would behave in a world without spanking.

It could be that your children are thriving not because you spank, but in spite of it.

More from Kovac: A memo to imperfect moms

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Many superstar athletes from Michael Vick to Tiger Woods were ultimately forgiven by fans and the public. Could Ray Rice also get a second chance?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
The indictment of NFL star Adrian Peterson on child abuse charges has revealed sharp differences in cultural, regional and generational attitudes toward using physical force to discipline kids.
updated 9:24 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
cara reedy
The world often treats little people like Cara Reedy as less than human. She's learned to stand up for herself and shout back.
updated 11:26 AM EDT, Thu September 11, 2014
The unheard voices of domestic abuse spoke up on CNN iReport when Rihanna's story of abuse came to light. In light of the Ray Rice controversy, we decided to bring back these stories that are still just as powerful as the day they were told.
updated 10:10 AM EDT, Wed September 10, 2014
More than 3 million children witness domestic violence every year, and the damage can last a lifetime.
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
As media outlets Monday circulated video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator, many wondered why the woman -- now his wife -- could remain with him.
updated 12:52 PM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
The ways mother-daughter book clubs can help empower girls are the focus of a new book, "Her Next Chapter."
updated 9:44 AM EDT, Thu September 4, 2014
Colleges are working to prevent sexual assault by educating students on affirmative consent, or only "yes means yes."
updated 10:43 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
A mom questions if she wants her daughters seeing a "sado-masochistic relationship, dressed up as a Hollywood love fantasy?"
updated 3:04 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
In 2014, why is society still so incredibly uncomfortable with public breastfeeding? Kelly Wallace gets to the root of the controversy.
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Seven years ago, Barbara Theodosiou, then a successful entrepreneur, stopped going to meetings, leaving the house and taking care of herself. She grew increasingly distraught -- her two children were addicts.
updated 9:04 AM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
The situation in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager, throws America's problem with talking about race into sharp relief.
updated 10:25 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Mo'ne Davis is the first girl to throw a shutout in the Little League World Series. She's an inspiration, but will she change the face of the sport?
updated 8:36 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
There is a reason why when people post pictures of themselves during their middle school years on Facebook for "Throw Back Thursday," we all stop and take notice.
It could cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise your child -- and that's not even including college costs, according to new government estimates.
updated 12:09 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
From parent to son, uncle to nephew, there's a raw, private conversation being revived in America in the wake of violence in Ferguson, Missouri.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Children sometimes get left out of our conversations about mental illness. The truth is, they suffer too.
updated 5:14 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
CNN's Kat Kinsman says that talking freely about personal mental health and suicidal thoughts can help others.
updated 1:26 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
morning person
Easy tips on how to improve everything from your dinner order to the song in your head to your career.
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Thu August 7, 2014
The case of an Arizona mom who left her kids in a car during a job interview highlights the fluid line between bad parenting and criminal behavior.
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed August 6, 2014
A children's book about gun rights has benefited from an unexpected boost in sales after it became the subject of a mocking segment on a talk show.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
Some campers and counselors keep the campfire flames burning with summer flings that become lifetime commitments.
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Fri August 1, 2014
After letting her 7-year-old son walk from their home to a park to play, a Florida mother faces up to five years in jail for child neglect.
updated 3:16 PM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
Lindsey Rogers-Seitz, who lost her son in a hot car, hopes mandatory technology in cars and car seats will stop child death from heatstroke in cars.
updated 10:42 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Not to mention your jeans, bras and pillows? Here's a definitive guide to keeping all your quarters clean.
Imagination Playgrounds have snaking tunnels, platforms and springy mats just like any other playground. But they're different in one fundamental way -- they're built by kids.
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Grammy Award-winning singer Sarah McLachlan, a 46-year-old divorced mom of two girls, talks about parenting, sex and whether women can have it all.
updated 7:54 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Researchers say physical punishment actually alters the brain.
updated 4:41 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
The case of a South Carolina mother arrested for allegedly leaving her 9-year-old daughter at a park while she was working sparks debate over how young is too young to leave a child alone.
updated 11:15 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
CNN's Kelly Wallace reveals 5 common parenting mistakes that many parents admit to making.
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Is it a bad idea for parents to let kids drink underage at home, or does an early sip make drinking less taboo? Studies are divided on the subject, which is a tough nut for parents to crack.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cellphones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night
Post your personal essays and original photos, and tell us how it really is.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT