Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Spanking the gray matter out of our kids

By Sarah Kovac, Special to CNN
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1154 GMT (1954 HKT)
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
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Not again.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
I happen to agree with Renee Zellweger that all the chatter about her face is "silly." But I, and many other women I talked with via email Wednesday, would add some other choice words to the mix to describe the non-stop attention about her appearance: nasty, cruel, hurtful, invasive and sexist.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 2206 GMT (0606 HKT)
I have long thought millennials, who expect flexibility in the workplace, would be the group that would bring an end to the stigma that is too often associated with flex time -- the belief that wanting a flexible work arrangement means you aren't willing to work as hard. But now I'm thinking it's going to be men who will get us there.
October 22, 2014 -- Updated 1140 GMT (1940 HKT)
Say it with us: Kids today have it sooooo easy.
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1829 GMT (0229 HKT)
An Atlanta judge reportedly reprimanded an immigration attorney for bringing her 4-week-old to court for a hearing -- a hearing she asked the judge to reschedule because she was on her six-week maternity leave.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 2018 GMT (0418 HKT)
Monica Lewinsky tweeted for the first time. She called herself "patient zero" of cyber-bullying.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1943 GMT (0343 HKT)
Meet Shyanne Roberts, a 10-year-old competitive shooter with something to prove: "Kids and guns don't always mean bad things happen."
October 21, 2014 -- Updated 1457 GMT (2257 HKT)
"Breaking Bad's" Walter White may have cleverly dodged authorities during his career as a drug kingpin, but his action figure hasn't dodged the wrath of a Florida mother.
October 20, 2014 -- Updated 1350 GMT (2150 HKT)
strawberry ghosts
We love Halloween season. Sweets. Sweaters. Sipping hot cider (maybe spiked). Halloween can certainly get you in the spirit, and nothing warms our hearts like these healthy Halloween treats that help you stay energized instead of stuck in a sugar coma.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1923 GMT (0323 HKT)
Does your baby cry during long flights, causing you to want to disappear from the glares of fellow passengers?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 0252 GMT (1052 HKT)
Ask any teen if they suffer from social media anxiety and they would probably tell you no. But the truth is getting "likes" and the fear of missing out are adding stress to teens' lives.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)
Many photographers have taken it upon themselves to document stillborn and terminal babies' precious moments after birth.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1946 GMT (0346 HKT)
As part of the insurance coverage offered to its female employees, Facebook is paying to freeze their eggs.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
Amal Alamuddin was well-known in many important circles long before she snagged the world's most eligible bachelor. But Amal Alamuddin is now Amal Clooney, according to her law firm's website.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Trends in young adult fiction have shifted from wizards to glittering vampires to bloodthirsty "Hunger Games" and now, to teens coping with illnesses and realistic issues.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0056 GMT (0856 HKT)
Before he died this year, 14-year-old Martin Romero wanted to do something for his community.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
A 12-year-old girl called Dick's Sporting Goods out on its lack of female athletes in the Basketball 2014 catalog.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1636 GMT (0036 HKT)
Before he was even born, Shane Michael Haley had already met the Philadelphia Phillies, been to the top of the Empire State Building and shared a cheesesteak with his parents.
October 10, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I read the initial comments from Microsoft's CEO on how women who don't ask for raises will receive "good karma."
October 10, 2014 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
A photo series "From the NICU to the Moon" imagines premature babies in future professions with a series of imaginative doodles.
October 10, 2014 -- Updated 1733 GMT (0133 HKT)
Jessica Dunne and her father Michael P. Dunne
"I don't think anyone is ready for grief. But when it hits you, it knocks you out cold," Jessica Dunne wrote after the sudden loss of her father.
October 9, 2014 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
Most moms will say they long for a day when moms stop criticizing one another, but most of us are guilty of tearing each other down.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
When we think of terminal cancer patients, we don't imagine Brittany Maynard -- 29, vigorous, happy. But she will soon take a handful of pills that will end her life.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
"Back in my day, we used to walk five miles uphill, carrying all our books in the blistering cold and the pouring rain..." Some schools have found a new way to making walking to school safer -- and more fun.
October 7, 2014 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
The death of a New Jersey boy, the first health officials are directly linking to Enterovirus D68, has parents wondering whether school is the worst place to send kids susceptible to the virus.
October 7, 2014 -- Updated 1422 GMT (2222 HKT)
It's a heartbreaking time for three families, football teams and communities after three players died last week. Investigations are under way, but some parents are wondering, is the sport safe for children?
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
Here's what some schools are doing to create welcoming environments for transgender and gender nonconforming children.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Nothing could prepare this mom-to-be for what she learned at her first ultrasound.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
A 15-year-old British schoolboy has struck a chord with his eloquent response to actress Emma Watson's United Nations speech encouraging men to join in the fight for gender equality.
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