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Wessel van den Berg
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Debunking corporal punishment myth #1: Spanking children for discipline does no harm

20 November 2013, 07:01

A recent headline in the Sunday Times, Spanking 'kills kids',  led to much uproar from the pro-spanking lobby. It headlined a news report on a study just released, from Columbia University, on the negative impact that spanking has on cognitive and intellectual development. Now, we’re not talking here about those serious assaults on children which would be classified and treated as assault under current law. We’re talking about those so-called ‘little smacks’. The ones some people think god told them to deliver; that some think are mandated by their culture. The ones that people claim that children need as they cannot be disciplined in any other way, and that they not only do no harm, they in fact do good.

While the headline of the article was perhaps a little dramatic, the research that was its subject is by no means the first clear evidence that hitting children (for that is what ‘smacking’ and ‘spanking’ children really is!) causes lasting harm. A large and growing body of credible, valid and reliable research clearly links corporal punishment (yes, those ‘little smacks’) with negative effects on mental health, physical well-being and behaviour in childhood and adulthood.

The fact is that prohibiting the hitting of children is a rights issue ? children have the same right as adults to protection from abuse from either public or private sources.

·       Hitting your wife is called ‘domestic violence’ and is a crime;

·       Hitting another adult is called ‘assault’ and is a crime;

·       Hitting a child is called ‘discipline’ and is not a crime.

Are children not entitled to at least the same level of protection as adults, given their emotional and physical immaturity and the developmental nature of their evolving capacities?

However, beyond the issue of children’s rights, the claim that hitting children does no harm needs to be challenged in the light of a growing body of evidence that it in fact does great harm. Of significant concern is the negative impact on cognitive and intellectual functioning that has been reliably linked to corporal punishment. Here is some of the evidence:

·       2000: Neurobiological studies of the brain have found that stress experienced by very young children (such as that experienced when the child is fearful of being hit) at certain critical stages of development will result in delay or absence of development of certain skills, because of heightened levels of adrenalin affecting the dopamine levels in the brain. (Glaser d. 2000. Child Abuse and Neglect and the Brain ? a Review. J. Child Psychol. Psychiat. Vol. 41 (1), pp. 97±116)

·       2002: When the caregivers themselves are the source of distress, children are unable to modulate arousal. This causes a breakdown in the capacity to process and regulate experience. At the core of traumatic stress is a breakdown in the capacity to regulate internal states. (Van der Kolk B. 2002. Trauma and Memory. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 52 (1) pp52–64,.

·       2003: Corporal punishment of infants results in elevated baseline levels of cortisol. (Bugental DB, Martorell GA, Barraza V. The hormonal costs of subtle forms of infant maltreatment. Horm Behav 2003;43: 237-44)

·       2009: The IQs of children ages 2 to 4 who were not spanked were 5 points higher four years later than the IQs of those who were spanked. The IQs of children ages 5 to 9 years old who were not spanked were 2.8 points higher four years later than the IQs of children the same age who were spanked. ( 2009. Children who are spanked have lower IQs, new research finds. Accessible at

·       2009: 17,404 university students from 32 different countries were surveyed. The analysis found a lower average IQ in countries where spanking is more prevalent. ( 2009. Children who are spanked have lower IQs, new research finds. Accessible at

·       2009: Exposing children to physical punishment has detrimental effects on brain development, and may reduce the volume of the brain’s grey matter. (Mehta MA, et al. 2009. Amygdala, hippocampal and corpus callosum size following severe early institutional deprivation: The English and Romanian Adoptees study pilot. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 50:943–951

·       2010: Physical punishment has been seen to cause alterations in the dopaminergic regions associated with vulnerability to the abuse of drugs and alcohol. (Sheu Y-S, Polcan A, Anderson CM, et al. 2010. Harsh corporal punishment is associated with increased T2 relaxation time in dopamine-rich regions. Neuroimage 53: 412-9.

·       2011: Study of two schools in West Africa, one of which used corporal punishment and one of which did not found that the children at the school where corporal punishment was used were less able to perform tasks involving ‘executive functioning’ (such as planning, abstract thinking and delaying gratification). ( 2011. Spare the rod and develop the child. Accessible at

·       2013: Children who were frequently spanked by their fathers at age 5 had lower vocabulary scores at age 9.( MacKenzie M, Nicklas E, Waldfogel J, and Brooks-Gunn J. 2013. Spanking and Child Development Across the First Decade of Life. Accessible at

We know enough now to stop hitting kids. We know it has a detrimental effect on intelligence. We know it has long-term negative implications for physical and emotional well-being. We know it is related to a greater propensity for violence in adulthood. And we know that it is effective only for teaching immediate compliance.

Given that corporal punishment is linked with so many negative outcomes and only one positive one, isn’t it time we started using positive and non-violent discipline in raising the next generation? Discipline does not equal punishment, physical or other. Discipline is about demonstrating to children the behavior we wish to see them emulate. After all, the 21st century world in which today’s children will live needs people who are intelligent, self-disciplined, and self-motivated. Passing an amendment to the Children’s Act to prohibit corporal punishment in the home will assist us to raise such adults and become a more intelligent citizenry.

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