Don't Whoop That Child: How Spanking is Harming our Brains and Our Communities

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by Stacey Patton

“I’m gonna spank my child when he acts out. I got my butt whooped when I was a child and today I’m fine!”

I recently heard a 40-something-year-old black woman say this during a heated debate over physical discipline of children. Let’s call her Sista A.

Sista B responded: “Girl, please. You didn’t turn out fine. You grew up to be somebody who thinks it’s perfectly okay to hit a child. There’s something wrong with that,” she said as she gently tap, tap, tapped a finger against her own forehead.

“BOOM!” I said smiling as I gave Sista B a fist bump.

And she’s right: scientific research over many decades overwhelmingly concludes that getting hit as a child damages the way your brain develops, messes up your mental wiring, and distorts how you remember and talk about traumatic events.

Think about how most black Americans talk about corporal punishment for children:

  • “You have to spank them or they won’t respect you.”
  • “I whoop my child to keep him/her from going to jail. It works, because I’ve never been in trouble with the law.”
  • “The Bible says ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ God is on my side!”
  • “Spanking is discipline. It’s not the same thing as abuse.” 
  • “Spanking equals love and protection.”
  • “If I hadn’t been whooped, I’d have ended up dead or in jail.”

Over time, some people who hated and resented being spanked as children come to view it as desirable, even necessary because their brain can’t recognize being hit as a harmful act of violence. Some people joke about the pain that once made them cry. Many allow religious, cultural, and social justifications to trick them into doubting their healthy childhood belief that it was and felt wrong for them to be hit. As adults, they fervently believe that being whipped was so good for them that they will repeat this cycle with their own children. The core belief still dominant in black American culture is that hitting your child equals good, responsible parenting.

From my own childhood experiences, I remember those phrases – “This is for your own good.” “I beat you because I love you.” “I beat you so the white man won’t beat you or kill you.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.”

One reason I might have escaped some of the brain damage and never stopped feeling that the beatings were wrong is that I was five years old when I was adopted into the abusive home, and had never been hit prior to that time when I was in the foster care system. In other words, between the critical periods of age zero to four, my internal hard drive had already been set to process being hit as frightening and wrong.

Over the past few years I’ve grown impatient with the oft-repeated tired justifications for hitting children, especially among black Americans, given the troubling data on the number of abused black kids entering into the foster care system, parents going to jail, and the hundreds of kids who die each year as a result of child abuse. In many of these cases, the child victims were undoubtedly loved by their parents or caregivers who hit or killed them. The perpetrators had faulty wiring in their own brains that caused them to associate physical discipline with love and use violence to get their child to obey.

Let’s look at the data. In 2012, the most recent year of available data, the Administration for Children and Families reported that:

  • Black children had the highest victimization rates in the country, comprising over 140,000, or 21 percent of all abuse cases. 
  • In 2012, 403 of the 1,593 fatalities were black children, representing 32 percent of the victims. 
  • Most of the victims were under age 4.
  • The majority of the perpetrators of abuse, and murder, of black children were black women under age 44. 
  • See the 2012 report here.

Let’s talk about how black women under age 44 are most likely to abuse their children. Their intentions might be good, but their reasoning is deeply flawed. But we have to stop for a moment and seriously ask: How much of that flawed reasoning is due to the rewiring of the mothers’ brains that resulted from being hit in their youth? The research shows that a parent’s warmth and nurture does not mitigate the negative impact that hitting has on the brain.

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Martin Teicher, who studies the impact that stresses like abuse and neglect have on children’s brain development, says as a child grows, there are moments when there are regions of the brain that are particularly vulnerable to stress.

One of the most stress sensitive areas of the brain, he says, is the hippocampus, near the amygdala in the mid-brain, which is the center for emotional management and is used for learning, storing and retrieving memories. This part of the brain continues to produce important neurons after birth and stress can suppress this function, ultimately slowing down or impairing our ability to control emotions, take in new knowledge, and think at our best. When a child is exposed to trauma and stress (including spankings that don’t leave scars or other serious physical injuries), that part of the brain increases in volume and can alter a child’s normal brain development. The effects might not be apparent for years until after puberty.

And what are those effects?

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have found that children and adults who have been subjected to child abuse and neglect have less grey matter in their brains than those who have not been ill-treated. Medical professionals have consistently found a link between corporal punishment and increased aggression in children, low academic performance, vulnerability to depression, and antisocial behavior.

Dr. Teicher compared people who were spanked and those that were abused and found that they shared the same alterations in their brains, belying the popular myth that there’s a difference between discipline and abuse and its impact on children. He found that both groups of physically disciplined children had the same risks of developing drug and alcohol abuse, depression and aggressive behavior, decreases in I.Q., and other forms of cognitive impairment.

“We know that the brains of adults who were abused as children are different,” says Nadine Bean, an associate professor in the graduate social work department at West Chester University.

“Shrinkage in the amygdala and hippocampus impacts how one regulates strong emotion, how one processes memories, especially traumatic memories,” she says. “It may be that adults who were whooped as children actually do not remember the most horrible aspects of these experiences. What they may remember is the distorted justification of these experiences from their parent or caregiver.”

Professor Bean says this is similar to Stockholm Syndrome. “If you fear for your safety, your life, then you begin to believe to acquiesce to your abuser’s drivel,” she says.

Children who are hit by their parents can develop a very distorted view of love and attachment. As adults they don’t always know how to interpret healthy forms of love, they only understand being beaten. If you were hit as a child and grew up to be someone who hasn’t developed depression, addictions, suicidal thoughts, aggressive or other anti-social behaviors, but you’re one of those people who looks back and says that getting whooped was good for you and you vow to hit your own kid because it worked, then that is still evidence of brain damage.

“’I was beat and I turned out fine.’ I’ve heard that all of my professional social work life. They make think they are fine, but sadly aren’t,” Professor Bean says. “And, it isn’t just black people, this cut across races, ethnic groups, and socio-economic status. We have met because your child is having trouble in school or is acting aggressively within your home or neighborhood? Ok, you’re fine. Can we explore this a little further?”

Molly Castelloe, a psychology and performance expert who writes for Psychology Today has revealed how hitting damages the brain in other ways by teaching a child that learning occurs through punishment.

“This form of discipline pretends to be educational, but is actually a way for parents to vent their own anger. Spanking involves the learned misrecognition of injury as education,” she argues. “Figures of cultural authority, such as parents and teachers, may be construed as purveyors of sadism rather than knowledge. Corporal punishment undermines compassion for others, for oneself, and limits the mutual capacity for gaining.”

The problem is generational, Castelloe says. People parent the way they were parented. In other words, “the cause of this form of educational violence is often hidden in the repressed history of the parents. When adults do not understand the connections between their previous experiences of injury and those they actively repeat in the present, they perpetuate a destructive cycle and inflict their own suffering on their offspring.”

The result -- a new generation continues to carry the damage that has been stored up in the mind and body of their ancestor. The cycle, Castelloe and others maintain, can be broken when parents and caregivers work to become consciously aware of, and honest about, their own childhood pain so they don’t transmit historical violence to their children by hitting.

My hope is that black communities will begin to shift the conversation away from the ethics of using physical violence, the radio jokes and hair salon banter, the literal interpretations of Old Testament scriptures, and focus on the science which is clearly telling us that this practice is harming our children’s brains – and our communities.

Dr. Stacey Patton is a senior enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, the author of That Mean Old Yesterday—A Memoir, and is the founder of, a web portal designed to teach alternatives to physical discipline of children.

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