Ninety percent of all kids in America get spanked, and black kids get spanked somewhat more than white kids. For those of you who’ve read my books and who’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know that I am staunchly biased against spanking kids. So, it was this pretty strong confirmation bias that blinded me to the work of Kenneth Dodge. Dodge is a well-regarded professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, and he’s been researching corporal punishment and its effect on aggression in kids for decades.

Essentially, what Dodge and his colleagues found is that spanking correlates with higher levels of aggression in white kids, but with lower levels in black kids. As you might expect, these research findings were confounding and not especially warmly received by the larger research community. So Dodge and his team set about to try to understand them in more depth. What they eventually deduced was that culture and environment played a significant role in their findings. Because it was a regular part of black culture, they determined, spanking was essentially no big deal. In fact, early ethnographers equated spanking with love in black culture, and as the “legitimate expression of parental authority.” Not so for whites, where spanking is a closeted, unspoken taboo often triggered by frustration and anger.

Qualifying the Findings

To their credit, Dodge et al did qualify their findings, stating that with regard to black kids: “Spanking might not have proven long-term negative effects if (1) the spanking is administered in a cultural context of normative use; (2) spanking occurs in a family context of emotional support for the child; (3) spanking is applied in a systematic, non-angry manner with clear instrumental goals for the child; and (4) the harshness of the spanking never exceeds thresholds that could constitute physical abuse.”

I take several things away from Dodge’s research. One is that people are complex and we are exponentially more complex within different cultural contexts, and that our own insider and outsider biases need to be carefully examined. Additionally, this research doesn’t legitimize spanking black kids or white, nor does Dodge want it to. We really have no idea how the spankings those black kids received might have inhibited development and later neural connectivity in ways that affected other than aggression. Were they not spanked, how many of them might have generated sufficient neural connectivity and integration to grow up and become President of the United States?

This question also presents itself: what might our country and the rest of the world look like if the spanking statistics were reversed, that is, if 90% of the kids in this country were raised without spanking? What if the world that parents modeled was one that did not use physical aggression as a means of addressing conflicts and promoting discipline, but instead they worked hard at coming up with novel and creative ways to produce long term results that a quick slap produces in the short term? These are tough questions that I don’t expect to be answered in my lifetime. Here’s one reason why …

Teaching by Example

Several years ago when I taught parenting classes,  I enlisted a confederate before class. During the class I would ask for a volunteer and select the confederate and we would explore some aspect of their parenting practice. During the exchange I would subtly put them down and then at some point, I would unexpectedly slap them across the face. Not hard, but loud enough to be heard around the room. Then I would immediately ask parents to pay attention to what they were feeling in their bodies.

I stopped doing this exercise though after two classes, because the live emotional reaction to it was more of a distraction than anything. People missed the point. They became limbically hijacked, expressing various degrees of confusion, hilarity, shame, anger, embarrassment and betrayal. It clearly made them uncomfortable, even after I would disclose the collaboration of the willing confederate. When I would try to explain that as these feelings were triggered in them, so were large releases of cortisol and adrenaline, which are known neural inhibitors – glucocorticoids that prevent us from thinking straight. And this powerful reaction was going on with people (the parent members of the class) who were only watching! Imagine what the experience is like for the child on the receiving end who’s not a confederate, who won’t have a fully developed brain until age 25 or so. My intent was to actively demonstrate that hitting kids is not only neurologically compromising for the kids, it’s probably even worse for parents, much the way that killing people is detrimental for soldiers and policemen in the subsequent degree of PTSD they later develop. Sadly, based on current national spanking statistics, I don’t think that understanding happened.