website statistics

Latest News

Whoop That Child, Damage That Brain. Like Yours Was.

By Stacey Patton, Ph.D.

The following piece was originally published on

“I’m gonna spank my child when he acts out. I got my butt whooped when I was a child and today I’m fine!” 

I recently heard a 40-something-year-old black woman say this during a heated debate over physical discipline of children. Let’s call her Sista A. 

Sista B responded: “Girl, please. You didn’t turn out fine. You grew up to be somebody who thinks it’s perfectly okay to hit a child. There’s something wrong with that,” she said as she gently tap, tap, tapped a finger against her own forehead.

“BOOM!” I said smiling as I gave Sista B a fist bump. 

And she’s right: scientific research over many decades overwhelmingly concludes that getting hit as a child damages the way your brain develops, messes up your mental wiring, and distorts how you remember and talk about traumatic events. 

Think about how most black Americans talk about corporal punishment for children:

  • “You have to spank them or they won’t respect you.”
  • “I whoop my child to keep him/her from going to jail. It works, because I’ve never been in trouble with the law.”
  • “The Bible says ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’ God is on my side!”
  • “Spanking is discipline. It’s not the same thing as abuse.” 
  • “Spanking equals love and protection.”
  • “If I hadn’t been whooped, I’d have ended up dead or in jail.”

Over time, some people who hated and resented being spanked as children come to view it as desirable, even necessary because their brain can’t recognize being hit as a harmful act of violence. Some people joke about the pain that once made them cry. Many allow religious, cultural, and social justifications to trick them into doubting their healthy childhood belief that it was and felt wrong for them to be hit. As adults, they fervently believe that being whipped was so good for them that they will repeat this cycle with their own children. The core belief still dominant in black American culture is that hitting your child equals good, responsible parenting. 

From my own childhood experiences, I remember those phrases – “This is for your own good.” “I beat you because I love you.” “I beat you so the white man won’t beat you or kill you.” “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” “I brought you into this world and I can take you out.” 

One reason I might have escaped some of the brain damage and never stopped feeling that the beatings were wrong is that I was five years old when I was adopted into the abusivehome, and had never been hit prior to that time when I was in the foster care system. In other words, between the critical periods of age zero to four, my internal hard drive had already been set to process being hit as frightening and wrong.

Over the past few years I’ve grown impatient with the oft-repeated tired justifications for hitting children, especially among black Americans, given the troubling data on the number of abused black kids entering into the foster care system, parents going to jail, and the hundreds of kids who die each year as a result of child abuse. In many of these cases, the child victims were undoubtedly loved by their parents or caregivers who hit or killed them. The perpetrators had faulty wiring in their own brains that caused them to associate physical discipline with love and use violence to get their child to obey.

Let’s look at the data. In 2012, the most recent year of available data, the Administration for Children and Families reported that:

  • Black children had the highest victimization rates in the country, comprising over 140,000, or 21 percent of all abuse cases. 
  • In 2012, 403 of the 1,593 fatalities were black children, representing 32 percent of the victims. 
  • Most of the victims were under age 4.
  • The majority of the perpetrators of abuse, and murder, of black children were black women under age 44. 
  • See the 2012 report here

Let’s talk about how black women under age 44 are most likely to abuse their children. Their intentions might be good, but their reasoning is deeply flawed. But we have to stop for a moment and seriously ask: How much of that flawed reasoning is due to the rewiring of the mothers’ brains that resulted from being hit in their youth? The research shows that a parent’s warmth and nurture does not mitigate the negative impact that hitting has on the brain. 

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Martin Teicher, who studies the impact that stresses like abuse and neglect have on children’s brain development, says as a child grows, there are moments when there are regions of the brain that are particularly vulnerable to stress. 

One of the most stress sensitive areas of the brain, he says, is the hippocampus, near theamygdala in the mid-brain, which is the center for emotional management and is used for learning, storing and retrieving memories. This part of the brain continues to produce important neurons after birth and stress can suppress this function, ultimately slowing down or impairing our ability to control emotions, take in new knowledge, and think at our best. When a child is exposed to trauma and stress (including spankings that don’t leave scars or other serious physical injuries), that part of the brain increases in volume and can alter a child’s normal brain development. The effects might not be apparent for years until after puberty.

And what are those effects? 

Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine have found that children and adults who have been subjected to child abuse and neglect have less grey matter in their brains than those who have not been ill-treated. Medical professionals have consistently found a link between corporal punishment and increased aggression in children, low academic performance, vulnerability to depression, and antisocial behavior.

Dr. Teicher compared people who were spanked and those that were abused and found that they shared the same alterations in their brains, belying the popular myth that there’s a difference between discipline and abuse and its impact on children. He found that both groups of physically disciplined children had the same risks of developing drug and alcohol abuse, depression and aggressive behavior, decreases in I.Q., and other forms of cognitive impairment.

“We know that the brains of adults who were abused as children are different,” says Nadine Bean, an associate professor in the graduate social work department at West Chester University.

“Shrinkage in the amygdala and hippocampus impacts how one regulates strong emotion, how one processes memories, especially traumatic memories,” she says. “It may be that adults who were whooped as children actually do not remember the most horrible aspects of these experiences. What they may remember is the distorted justification of these experiences from their parent or caregiver.”

Professor Bean says this is similar to Stockholm Syndrome. “If you fear for your safety, your life, then you begin to believe to acquiesce to your abuser’s drivel,” she says.

Children who are hit by their parents can develop a very distorted view of love and attachment. As adults they don’t always know how to interpret healthy forms of love, they only understand being beaten. If you were hit as a child and grew up to be someone who hasn’t developed depression, addictions, suicidal thoughts, aggressive or other anti-social behaviors, but you’re one of those people who looks back and says that getting whooped was good for you and you vow to hit your own kid because it worked, then that is still evidence of brain damage.

“’I was beat and I turned out fine.’ I’ve heard that all of my professional social work life. They make think they are fine, but sadly aren’t,” Professor Bean says. “And, it isn’t just black people, this cut across races, ethnic groups, and socio-economic status. We have met because your child is having trouble in school or is acting aggressively within your home or neighborhood? Ok, you’re fine. Can we explore this a little further?”

Molly Castelloe, a psychology and performance expert who writes for Psychology Today hasrevealed how hitting damages the brain in other ways by teaching a child that learning occurs through punishment.

“This form of discipline pretends to be educational, but is actually a way for parents to vent their own anger. Spanking involves the learned misrecognition of injury as education,” she argues. “Figures of cultural authority, such as parents and teachers, may be construed as purveyors of sadism rather than knowledge. Corporal punishment undermines compassion for others, for oneself, and limits the mutual capacity for gaining.”

The problem is generational, Castelloe says. People parent the way they were parented. In other words, “the cause of this form of educational violence is often hidden in the repressed history of the parents. When adults do not understand the connections between their previous experiences of injury and those they actively repeat in the present, they perpetuate a destructive cycle and inflict their own suffering on their offspring.”

The result — a new generation continues to carry the damage that has been stored up in the mind and body of their ancestor. The cycle, Castelloe and others maintain, can be broken when parents and caregivers work to become consciously aware of, and honest about, their own childhood pain so they don’t transmit historical violence to their children by hitting.

My hope is that black communities will begin to shift the conversation away from the ethics of using physical violence, the radio jokes and hair salon banter, the literal interpretations of Old Testament scriptures, and focus on the science which is clearly telling us that this practice is harming our children’s brains – and our communities.

10 comments on Whoop That Child, Damage That Brain. Like Yours Was.

  1. Sharon says:

    Being beaten has affected my ability to trust men and find a good mate, particularly a black one. Beatings often centered around meal times and I was abused for not eating eggs, I avoid them 40 years later. My father and his nephew to this day joke about how stubborn I was! It’s definitely changed my life.
    I read your book, and thank you for having the courage to speak to this.

  2. Emme Dean says:

    Isn’t this pertinent to the issues you describe? : “Black mothers are assumed to be irresponsible and difficult to rehabilitate. A number of studies demonstrate that caseworkers, judges, and doctors are more suspicious of non-white parents. A recent study of Philadelphia hospital records discovered that African American and Latino toddlers hospitalized for fractures were more than five times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse, and more than three times more likely to be reported to child protective services, than white children with comparable injuries. The racial disparity in the families involved in the system, in turn, reinforces a quintessential racist stereotype — that black people are incapable of governing themselves and need state supervision.”

  3. Emme Dean says:

    This is also perinent: “When examining decisions and outcomes throughout the child welfare system, Roberts says you can make a good case that Black children fared worse than others. For example, suspected abuse of African American children is reported more often, charges are more likely to be substantiated, Black children are less likely to receive mental health services in foster care, they have fewer visits with parents and siblings, their families receive fewer services, families have fewer contacts with caseworkers and parents’ rights are more likely to be terminated…Roberts cited statistics on reporting of suspected child abuse to demonstrate the racism that sets child welfare system into motion. A 1999 study, for example, showed that doctors failed to detect abusive head trauma 2 times more often in white children as in minority children. Black and Hispanic children hospitalized for fractures from 1994 to 2000 were 5 times more likely to be evaluated for child abuse and 3 times more likely to be reported than whites, according to a 2002 study. And, finally, a 1990 study showed that Black women were 10 times more likely to be reported by doctors for substance abuse during pregnancy than whites…”Even when families have the same characteristics and problems, African American children are more likely to be taken out of the home, and Hispanics, to a lesser extent, are more likely than whites to be placed in foster care,” according to a 1997 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services study.

    “A Center for Study of Social Policy study found that African American families do not receive the necessary support, the system does not fairly assess or appreciate their unique strengths and weaknesses, African American families and youth are negatively characterized or labeled by workers, there is insufficient advocacy for families and children and there are no mechanisms to hold agencies accountable. Finally, the center concluded, people think that African American children are better off away from their families and communities…It is also clear, Roberts says, that Black children benefit from needed child welfare services. But, she asks: “Why does foster care have to be the No. 1 response that we spend so much money on as opposed to less disruptive ways of dealing with children’s needs?”

  4. Benjamin says:

    As a retired teacher, I can testify first-hand that it is remarkably difficult to have an abused child removed from the home and placed in foster care. In all my professional years of witnessing a tremendous amount of abuse both first and second hand, I have yet to see CPS remove a single child from his or her home.

    All of my children of concern received at minimum weekly home visits and family therapy, therapy intended to strengthen the family bonds and encourage healthy parenting practices. The therapists were also available at the drop of a hat to help in emergency situations, as well.

    CPS does everything possible to support the family and avoid removing the children from their home environments.

  5. Benjamin says:

    As a private person, a retired high school math teacher who is no longer a court-mandated reporter, I must say I am sickened and heart-broken by all of the black-on-black child abuse I have personally witnessed.

    I have made many calls to CPS, had the police perform well-checks on abused children – have done literally everything legally possible when faced with child abuse – but to no avail. The non-abusive parent always circles the wagons around the abusive parent. Always!

    The black community must come together to fight child abuse because those of us on the ‘outside’ are relatively powerless to effect change.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top