The Spanking Mum: The science bit

In the days when I was brave enough to have a Twitter account, I was very concerned to see a link posted to my feed which claimed: ‘Spanking causes brain damage.’

Basically, it said that spanking had been linked to a restriction in brain development, picked up in a study of MRI scans. This obviously merited urgent attention. So I went straight to the source and examined the evidence. How does this research stack up?

Firstly, from around 1,400 people pre-screened for this study, a mere 23 (who had been spanked as children) were selected as the study group, and 22 (who had never been spanked) selected as the control group.

The 23 were selected on the basis that they had received ‘Harsh Corporal Punishment’ (HCP). Their MRI scans revealed that Grey Matter Volume (GMV) was reduced compared with the control group. Admittedly, very concerning.

But when we examine the definition of HCP that things begin to unravel – basically, the main differentiation is whether an implement was used for the child’s spankings, rather than the parent’s hand.

This implies that all implements are physically harsher on a child’s bottom than an open hand. However, if you’ve ever done any experimenting, you’ll know this isn’t necessarily the case!

I spank my children with a small wooden paddle (actually an old butter pat I picked up at an antiques centre). It’s less than seven inches long, thin, very light and used from the wrist, it stings a great deal but produces far less a physical impact than my open hand would.

As another example, consider the cane. This an implement many parents would consider as ‘severe’. But although it produces a memorable sting and a temporary mark on the buttocks (due to its small impact area), the cane is again much lighter than a parent’s hand and could arguably be considered safer to use for correcting a child.

Our experience of spankings is not a scientific one, and our childhood memories are not wholly reliable. A friend of mine once proudly told his wife of his boyhood days hurtling down a really steep hill on his bicycle. When he took her to the actual site of these daredevil exploits, that big hill was revealed as no more than a gentle slope.

Being more serious for a moment, there is every chance that if a person experienced unreasonably harsh CP as a child, additional psychological trauma may have been brought to bear at the time of those punishments – which may explain the link in the findings rather more readily than highly subjective data on the use of a spanking implement.

What we can say is that here is yet another example of non-definitive research being presented as irrefutable scientific ‘fact’ to close down a debate. Exactly the same tactics are being employed in the current conversations about climate change and transgender issues. As I observed in my post about Benjamin Spock’s legacy, never underestimate how much politics can drive scientific activity.

So no, the debate about spanking is not ‘over’, as another eye-grabbing nugget I saw the other day claimed. And meanwhile, reasonable, loving parents who spank in moderation are still entitled to their own opinions – and the right to bring up their own children as they see fit.

Contributor: Louise. Originally published in her blog The Spanking Mum. Opinions are solely those of the original author.

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