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Charles Barkley defends it, Cris Carter decries it, but studies show spanking can change brain chemistry

Bernie Mac performs during the “Original Kings of Comedy” tour. (Photo by Craig Herndon)

When comedian Bernie Mac died in 2008, all sorts of clips from his stand-up performances and his eponymous television show were unearthed to remember him. Like all good comics, Mac was skilled at mining pain for his jokes. He would twist it, reimagine it, maybe sprinkle it with a bit of Lawry’s seasoning to make it go down, and presto — his fans would find themselves laughing at Mac’s prescribed elixir for remedying bad kids: “I’ll bust you in the head ’til the white meat shows.”

When Mac joked of opening a daycare where he would have no problem sending a kid home with a knot on his head, he was speaking to a packed house in Charlotte, N.C. There are familiar refrains when it comes to defending the practice of hitting or beating children to discipline them: that it’s cultural, that there’s a difference between discipline and abuse, that this is something that takes place all over the American South, and that people simply don’t understand.

That’s precisely what Charles Barkley argued during a roundtable discussion Sunday on “The NFL Today” in which he defended the practice.

“Whipping — we do that all the time,” Barkley said. “Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”

But speaking on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown,” Cris Carter made an impassioned speech against hitting children — and he emphatically denied that the problem is one only common in the African-American community. “This goes across all racial lines, ethnicities, religious backgrounds,” Carter said. “People believe in disciplining their children. … It’s the 21st century. My mom was wrong. She did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me. And I promised my kids, I won’t teach that mess to them. You can’t beat a kid to make them do what they wanna do.”

With the revelation that Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has been indicted for allegedly hitting his son with a switch until he left open wounds and welts, the argument over corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool has once again taken center stage. But since Mac made jokes like that in “The Original Kings of Comedy” in 2000, a number of studies have shown the long-term damage inflicted by such punishment, including changes in brain chemistry that increase the likelihood of depression, anxiety and antisocial behavior.

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in 2012 suggested spanking can lower IQ and reduce the amount of gray matter in the brain. As Psychology Today explained, gray matter is the “connective tissue between brain cells … an integral part of the central nervous system and influences intelligence testing and learning abilities. It includes areas of the brain involved in sensory perception, speech, muscular control, emotions and memory.”

A 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin’s Waisman Center found hormones released when girls are abused could trigger early puberty. Rather than triggering the fight-or-flight hormone cortisol — which is what happened when boys were abused — researchers found that, after regular abuse, girls released oxytocin, a hormone we associate with post-coital and post-natal bonding. But too much cortisol can be just as damaging. Eventually, a body learns to become inured to the stressful situations that trigger its release.

Said researcher Stacey Patton of For Harriet:

Children who are spanked don’t have the option to flee or fight – they must submit to the pain and violence without grabbing, blocking, or defending against the assault to their body. Corporal punishment triggers the release of cortisol.
Having elevated levels of cortisol for a short period of time is okay, but if this fear response is experienced repeatedly it can damage a young brain and lead to diseased neural networks. Researchers also say that repeated elevations of cortisol can result in a child becoming [de]sensitized to fear, making it easier for them to experience danger and pain and normalize abnormal behavior. Think about how many adults who were hit as children can’t remember the trauma and fear they actually felt at the time but say that being hit was a “good” for them because they’ve only held onto the rationalizations used to justify the violence against them.

In 2011, Time Magazine said studies suggested as much as 90 percent of parents used some form of corporal punishment to discipline their children.

Other parents have vociferously decried the practice of beating or spanking children, too. It’s an issue Renee Martin of Womanist Musings has written about extensively. In response to a Madame Noire post that advocated spanking, Martin wrote:

When I see people openly advocating violence against children, I wonder if they realize that we are in a constant state of justifying violence against marginalized bodies.  When women are beaten by their husbands, we excuse it because far too many people believe that she was asking for it.  How is a girl to form healthy relationships, when those that claim to love her the most hit her.  Is it not a possibility that she will equate this form of love, to violence that she may encounter later in life? What about boys?  Does this violence not teach them that if they are dissatisfied with someone who is smaller, or physically weaker than them, that it is appropriate to hit them for their own good?

In her essay “Justice: Childhood Love Lessons” from “All About Love: New Visions,” bell hooks wrote about protecting children and its connection to womanism: “Why was harsh punishment a gesture of love? As children do, we pretended to accept this grown-up logic; but we knew in our hearts it was not right.”

Hooks’s message may be a difficult one for many proponents of spanking to swallow. Perhaps evidence the psychological bruises levied by spanking far outlast those from any switch, belt, shoe or electrical cord may resonate instead.


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