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Spanking Children Is Still Common and Still Harmful

While spanking children is still common practice, it is widely acknowledged by early childhood experts and mental health professionals as both ineffective and harmful to a child's long-term health and wellbeing.

A spanking. That moment when a child receives a swat on their backside for doing or saying something that an adult in their world did not approve of.

It's likely that you've either received, given, or witnessed a spanking at least once in your lifetime. “Some estimates are that by the time a child reaches the fifth grade [in the United States], 80 percent of children have been spanked,” says George Holden 2018, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University who studies parenting and corporal punishment, or punishment which involves inflicting pain on, or harm to the body including spanking.

According to national statistics, about three-quarters of the United States population uses and/or approves of spanking:

  • 62% of Latino and Caucasian women believe it is sometimes necessary to give a child a “good hard spanking”
  • 81% of African-American women believe the same thing
  • Latino (73%), Caucasian (76%), and African American (80%) men believe that children sometimes need a “good hard spanking”

While spanking children is still a common practice, it is widely acknowledged by early childhood experts and mental health professionals as both ineffective and harmful to a child's long-term health and well-being. 

The Paradox Of Spanking 

Perhaps you were spanked and feel you "turned out fine", or perhaps you were spanked and you are certain that you did not turn out fine. Either way, based on the research, we now know that choosing to spank a child means that you are choosing to gamble with their long-term health and well-being. 

“It’s a very controversial area even though the research is extremely telling and very clear and consistent about the negative effects on children,” says Sandra Graham-Bermann, Ph.D., a psychology professor and principal investigator for the Child Violence and Trauma Laboratory at the University of Michigan. 

Research shows that spanking a child can leave lifelong imprints long beyond the initial swat, increasing mental health, and behavioral issues in children, ranging from depression and anxiety to alcohol use. In addition to negative physical and physiological effects, one less commonly discussed pitfall of spanking is the negative impact it can have on a child’s sexual development.

The Biology Of Spanking

One man, MC, a member of the Generation Mindful community, recently reached out to us to share about the lifelong impact spanking has had on him. “I had been taught that the area that my bathing suit covered was private, but when my father decided to spank me, that private area of my body was exposed and was touched in a violent and painful manner. These messages told me that it was loving for someone to expose a private area of your body and touch it violently with a series of smacks.”

Spanking involves the buttocks, which is in close proximity to the genitals and has a high concentration of nerve endings. When a child is spanked repeatedly, blood rushes to the area through the iliac artery, causing the skin to turn red. The iliac artery also branches off to the genital area and, as such, spanking can trigger powerful and involuntary sensations of sexual arousal. The brain can record and remember these experiences, connecting spanking with arousal. This trespass is how spanking can become sexualized.

The impact of these negative childhood experiences can directly influence and run the narrative of our adulthood. Murray Straus, founder and co-director of the UNH Family Research Laboratory and professor emeritus of sociology,  analyzed the results of four studies, later presenting his findings at the American Psychological Association’s Summit on Violence and Abuse in Relationships. Straus found that those who had experienced corporal punishment had an increased probability of coercing sex, risky sex, or masochistic sex.

“These results, together with the results of more than 100 other studies, suggest that spanking children is one of the roots of relationship violence and mental health problems,” Straus says. 

Spanking Is Not Discipline 

“I began thinking being hurt by someone was an act of love and that hurting someone showed that you loved them,” MC shared.

And while some adults who were spanked as children report escaping long-term physical, mental, and emotional negative outcomes, many others do not.

Lane, another Generation Mindful community member, had this to say about the lasting impact spanking had on her, “I was one of those people who was spanked and thought I had turned out just fine. It wasn’t until I became a parent that I discovered the lasting negative effect of being spanked, and though I had every intention of not spanking my own children, it was my first impulse when I was feeling angry. Sometimes the damage is hidden, but it’s there all the same."

Past The Anecdotal Evidence Of Spanking

Whether you were spanked or not, and whether you feel you turned out fine or not, this line of reasoning offers little insight or guidance into best practices when it comes to raising a child. Many of us grew up not wearing our seat belts and are still alive today to talk about it, but that doesn’t make driving without seat belts advisable. 

The commonly heard “I turned out fine” defense for spanking can lead to three common pitfalls in thinking that come with anecdotal evidence, namely:

1) dismissing all broader data to the contrary

2) dismissing alternate views, and

3) failing to learn and progress by engaging with a challenging idea.

Says Kazdin, who served as the American Psychological Association President in 2008, shared, “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.”

If you believe in and/or use spanking, making the shift away from punitive child-rearing methods can be challenging, particularly if spanking was modeled for you as a form of "discipline", but with community, tools, and support, it is possible. 

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