"[Spanking has] been generally regarded as an acceptable practice, and parents who use it tend to justify it as a separate thing from more severe forms of physical abuse," she said.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on May 13, 2021. It has since been updated.
The practice of spanking children to discipline them has emerged as a controversial topic on social media in recent years. While some vehemently oppose it, others seem to take a strong "well, we turned out fine, didn't we?" attitude to it. Dr. Han Ren, a licensed psychologist and school psychologist, put things into perspective with the help of a study by Harvard researchers, which explains how spanking affects children's brain development in ways similar to more severe forms of violence. Dr. Han, who has over 99k followers on TikTok, broke down the subject in a series of informative videos that have gone viral on social media.
Speaking to Bored Panda, the mother-of-two explained that she started making TikTok videos about six months into the pandemic mostly as a creative outlet and a way to spread information about mental health. "I noticed there was a growing interest in mental health and therapist creators on the platform and thought 'I could do that!' I also noticed the lack of diversity in popular creators and the dearth of content specifically centering BIPOC individuals speaking to the complexities of mental health within our cultures. I decided to take a stab at it and my platform grew pretty quickly," she explained.
Coming to the study about how spanking affects brain development in children, Harvard researchers found that children who had been spanked had a greater neural response in multiple regions of the prefrontal cortex that typically respond to cues in the environment that tend to be consequential, such as a threat, and may affect decision-making and processing of situations. Their findings were in line with similar research conducted on children who had experienced severe violence, suggesting that "while we might not conceptualize corporal punishment to be a form of violence, in terms of how a child's brain responds, it's not all that different than abuse. It's more a difference of degree than of type," said Katie A. McLaughlin, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study.
Dr. Han believes that most parents do not realize how harmful spanking can be to their child's development. "It's been generally regarded as an acceptable practice, and parents who use it tend to justify it as a separate thing from more severe forms of physical abuse. There are plenty of parents who have noted that they plan to continue to use this practice despite the evidence, as well as individuals who defend their parents for using it. Beliefs remain socially entrenched, but change is slow and I'm so glad it's getting recognition and visibility," she said.
"TikTok is definitely having a moment around spanking content. I noticed it coming up with many other creators, especially creators of color. I was surprised to see the amount of controversy and backlash in comments with people really doubling down on defending spanking. When I came across this article, I wanted to share the new scientific evidence against the use of this practice, especially since it differentiates mild spanking from abuse. I knew the topic was hot, but I didn't expect it to go as viral as it did," Dr. Han added.
"There are many different ways to guide children and discourage undesired behavior. Parenting is a long game. I think we forget that we're in the weeds sometimes. Spanking brings quick and temporary results, which feels more accessible to many parents. It's worth noting that even with parents who don't spank, the use of emotional control, threats, coercion, and intimidation brings about similar fear-based responses in children," she said, clarifying that she doesn't have the brain scan data to support this. Dr. Han advises parents to look into more gentle and loving strategies to guide and nurture their children toward the right thing.
Dr. Han also made a video addressing the role of generational trauma in our cultural behavior. She pointed out that many communities of color that still cling to spanking as part of their culture, have been historically and consistently enslaved and oppressed. "The intersections of culture, trauma, epigenetics, and neurobiology are complex and murky. It's impossible to tease them out. Throw in good intentions, and conflating trauma for love and culture, and you have a snapshot of why these practices may be so enduring in communities of color," she wrote on Instagram.
"To be clear, I am not victim-blaming, blaming parents, or absolving police/authority for brutality. The racism inherent in policing (and education) are historic, systemic, structural, and by design. What I am saying is that some parents believe spanking will teach their kids to listen to authority and comply outside of the home, when it actually triggers fight/flight in the face of confrontation and inadvertently puts their kids at greater danger," she added. "Good intentions with unintended consequences."