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  • Writer's pictureJenna Wilson-Levin

The Psychological Impacts of Corporal Punishment in Parenting

Updated: Oct 16, 2023

Some corporal punishment, like spanking, has historically been a prevalent and accepted form of punishment for young children across various cultures and time periods. However, in the 21st century, the popularity of "gentle parenting" approaches has led to a decline in the use of spanking. Nowadays, spanking is widely criticized as both cruel and ineffective, and harsher physical contact is illegal.


Nonetheless, proponents of spanking argue for its reinstatement, claiming that younger

generations have become weakened due to its absence. Surprisingly, some elementary schools

have even reintroduced spanking as a disciplinary measure after decades of disuse. It has now

become a question of whether it is an appropriate punishment or not, especially in schools.


Thus, the pivotal question emerges: should parents resort to spanking as a disciplinary tool?

The study "Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children" sheds

light on the psychological repercussions that can stem from spanking. Despite a substantial body

of research indicating the adverse effects of spanking on children, the practice continues to

persist as a form of discipline. This study investigated the brain activity of children who had

experienced spanking in comparison to those who had not, particularly in response to perceived

threats in their environment.


By analyzing brain scans of 147 children—some of whom had been spanked during their early

years and others who had not—the researchers observed the brain's reactions during the viewing

of a series of photographs portraying emotional expressions like frowns and grins. Utilizing MRI

evaluations, they detected heightened brain activity in regions associated with emotional

reactions and threat perception among the spanked children. This increase in brain activity

occurred even when presented with neutral or benign facial expressions.


The study's findings suggested that spanking could potentially lead to alterations in children's

brain function comparable to those resulting from more severe forms of maltreatment. It

appeared that spanking led young children to display an exaggerated brain response to the given

stimuli.


In light of the comprehensive research presented in "Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural

Response to Threat in Children," it is evident that the implications of spanking as a disciplinary

tool are far-reaching and concerning. The study's findings reveal a profound link between

spanking and altered neural responses in children, particularly in relation to emotional reactions

and perceived threats. These neurological changes, akin to those seen in response to more severe

forms of maltreatment, underscore the urgency of reevaluating the practice of spanking.


As society increasingly moves towards gentler, more effective parenting approaches, it becomes

apparent that the use of spanking is not only outdated but also potentially harmful to a child's

emotional and psychological development. Parents and educators alike should consider the

evidence presented in this study when contemplating the appropriateness of spanking as a

disciplinary measure, especially in schools. Whether parents should resort to spanking has shifted from a question of tradition to one of evidence-based concern for the well-being of our

children.


Jenna Wilson-Levin is a 1st Year student at the University of Virginia


Reference:


Cuartas, J., Weissman, D.G., Sheridan, M.A., Lengua, L. and McLaughlin, K.A. (2021),

Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children. Child Dev, 92: 821-

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