Published on April 3rd, 2017 | by Dr. Stacey Patton4
“Don’t Be a Fast Girl” — How Hitting Your Daughter Can Trigger Early Puberty
I wrote my book, Spare the Kids, because I am a child abuse survivor and former foster youth who wants to change the cultural conversation on corporal punishment in black communities. Although many black people believe that hitting children will save them from state-sanctioned police violence, the streets, drugs and incarceration, or from early pregnancy and sexual abuse, hitting children actually places them at risk for these negative outcomes that parents and caretakers are trying to prevent.
One common goal of black parents is to pace the budding sexuality of their young children as they grow into adolescence. This is especially true for girls, as a young woman’s chastity is somehow a reflection of her family’s values. In a lot of families, there are firm rules around what’s permitted. No makeup until a certain age. No dating until a certain age. No short skirts or tight shirts. Don’t be fast. Stay out of trouble. And whatever you do, don’t bring home any babies.
These rules are pretty universal across ethnic and class groups. But some may argue that for black parents the strictness is even greater because the consequences are clear. Girls who’ve broken these rules make for easy, cautionary tales about lost opportunities, bad choices, not listening to parents, and the importance of keeping one’s knees closed. Not to mention, a fast black girl seems to confirm stereotypes of wanton black female sexuality.
Beyond steady exhortations not to do it, sex is generally not a topic of polite conversation in our homes, our churches, or the larger black community. It touches on too many taboos and toxic racial and gender stereotypes. On top of that, generational traumas—rape and forced breeding during slavery, gynecological abuse and forced sterilization by white medical practitioners, misogyny, sexual objectification in popular culture—have deeply impacted how black girls are reared by their parents and other elders.
Black parents see a correlation between sexuality and more hardship. That’s not something they would ever choose for their child. Religion also plays a significant role here. Parents who are steeped in religion respond negatively to any hint of sexual activity. That stifles important conversations about it even more.
Then bubbling just beneath the religion and the male-dominated structure of our society, where protecting a girl’s virginity is crucial, are the respectability politics that encourages parents to keep young black bodies under control. And so we whup girls to try to maintain that control and to maintain in them a semblance of innocence. By keeping our kids “young,” we somehow feel we are protecting them from the stereotypes and criminalization that get directed at black bodies. In our culture, many people believe that raising up good children requires policing their bodies through force. But decades of scientific research on the biochemical consequences of spanking a child indicate there is reason to believe that hitting a child can accelerate puberty and sexual maturation in girls.
For fifty years, scientists have studied how the impact of children’s experiences—including how they are parented—can rewire their developing brain’s physical structure or social and emotional function. We’ve learned that drinking and smoking during pregnancy is harmful. Breastfeeding is good for an infant’s psychological development. We’ve also learned that good nutrition is key to children’s cognitive development. And now pediatricians and other biomedical researchers have added spanking to the list of practices that need serious consideration because of the potential harms to children’s developing brains.
The pain and stress that come with receiving a hit can alter what’s called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is a series of nerves and hormonal channels that is a major part of the neuroendocrine system, which controls reactions to stress and regulates body processes such as digestion, the immune system, mood, emotions, and sexuality. Exposure to only mild stress in early childhood can enhance HPA functioning and help young people develop lifelong resilience to stress, but repeated stress can cause the HPA axis to become hyper-reactive. So when parents hit their child to correct misbehavior, what they can’t see is the immediate biochemical response their pain has caused their child’s body and how over time it can cause emotional and physiological damage. It’s akin to a kid being fed a constant diet of junk food and then eventually developing obesity or diabetes.
In other words, the body keeps score.
Scientists at Harvard Medical School have compared neuro images of brains of maltreated (emotional, physical, sexual, through neglect) and non-maltreated children, and even followed groups of females from infancy through adulthood to gain insights on the impact early-childhood stress had on their emotional and physiological well-being. The maltreatments include poverty, community violence, parental abuse and neglect, or harsh discipline. The research has focused on the stress hormone cortisol, which is released when children find themselves in frightening, anxiety-producing situations, such as being threatened or hit by a parent. Cortisol gets released by the pituitary gland and sets off fight-or-flight responses to feeling threatened.
Children who are being whupped don’t have the option to fight or flee. They must submit to the experience without grabbing, blocking, or defending their bodies. This triggers the release of cortisol, which allows children to manage the immediate pain and stress. Having elevated levels of cortisol for a short period of time is not harmful, but if this fear response is experienced repeatedly, it can damage a young brain. Researchers also say that repeated elevations of cortisol can result in children becoming desensitized 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.
“The cortisol response is great and useful when it is fired episodically. The problem is that when kids are exposed to chronic violence, adversity, threats, fear, and hitting, too much cortisol becomes poisonous and undermines the psychological functionality of the brain and physical health.” says Jay Belsky, an expert in the field of child development and family studies and a professor of human development at the University of California, Davis.
Belsky adds: “If the release of cortisol becomes chronic, then the system loses its capacity to mount a stress response. Hitting kids is not only painful, it is frightening. Parents induce fear by hitting. They say, ‘I want them to be afraid of me.’ But the fearfulness extends beyond the immediate situation of being hit. It produces anxiety, worry, and hypervigilance… What parents don’t understand is that they may be undermining their child’s ability to cope in the future. That is a problem for dealing with real situations.”
“Beating children, scaring them, exposing them to chronic adversity, and the fear it produces, from the body’s perspective, has biological affects that are very similar to experiencing the subtle and not-so-subtle slights of racial discrimination. Your body doesn’t know the difference,” Belsky says. In other words, children’s bodies experience a parent’s hitting in much the same way that a black adult experienced incidents of white racism. A chain reaction is set off: Breathing speeds up. The heart races. Muscles tighten. And then people fight, take flight, or try to protect themselves as they endure the hitting.
Leslie Seltzer, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin’s Child Emotion Lab, and her colleagues have been studying how stressful parent-child contact can overload a child’s body with stress hormones.
Including girls of different racial backgrounds—who were victims of severe abuse, not spanking—her study looked at the experiences of her girls within the Madison community. In lab experiments in which she placed adolescent girls in a stressful situation and then took samples of their saliva and urine, Seltzer surprisingly found that girls with histories of harsh physical discipline didn’t experience the cortisol rush that we would expect. Instead, these girls showed very high levels of oxytocin, known as the “comfort” or “cuddle” or “love” hormone that causes people to feel emotionally bonded to each other, and acts as the body’s built-in counter to stress.
Seltzer and her colleagues discovered that when placed under a stressful situation, girls with a history of harsh physical discipline had their oxytocin levels nearly triple from their baseline, which was already three times higher than the baseline levels of girls that had no history of harsh physical discipline. Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that gets released into the bloodstream when we experience warm feelings such as love, trust, security, attachment, comfort, and protection. Our levels of oxytocin surge when we hug, kiss, have sex, give birth, and breastfeed. A surge in a hormone associated with sexual pleasure is not the sort of thing you expect to happen to a girl when she is threatened or hit by a parent or guardian.
“To be clear, I am not suggesting that hitting children releases oxytocin,” Dr. Seltzer explained to me. “I am suggesting that children who are abused show an oxytocin response to a separate stressor applied in the lab. This is in stark contrast to girls who are not abused, who release cortisol in response to stress. . . . We would predict that girls exposed to repeated stress in the form of parental abuse should be motivated to establish other relationships. We know that oxytocin motivates social approach of novel individuals and is involved in the regulation of sexual behavior.”
What this means is, when you threaten or hit your daughter, the part of her brain that controls emotions, memories, and arousal gets activated into a state of hypervigilance and readiness to respond to danger. The amygdala in her brain gets the message that danger is coming and so it generates an emotional response that releases oxytocin. Over time, as her brain develops and she receives whuppings, this ripple of hormonal changes can permanently rewire her brain. Furthermore, her nervous system will run on a continuous high, as she constantly anticipates more threats.
That is what happens physiologically when a girl grows up with whupping as her caretaker’s approach to discipline. The consequences are stunning.
Having higher levels of oxytocin can trigger early puberty and may remove inhibitions around decisions to engage in risky sexual activities. The stress of being threatened and hit has actually damaged her brain. Researchers have found that these girls have higher levels of intrusive sexual thoughts, consume more pornography, and masturbate more frequently. They may also struggle to compartmentalize their sexual preoccupations, control their impulses, and refrain from the very temptations that their parents want them to avoid.
Let’s be clear: none of these activities are “bad things” in and of themselves. But by the time parents respond to a girl’s perceived promiscuity, they don’t realize that they may have been sowing the seeds for this behavior in infancy or adolescence by hitting, yelling at, and threatening her. If parents are whupping their daughters to reinforce family values around remaining chaste, then they need to understand how they’re working against themselves. Put plainly, repeatedly subjecting a girl to threats and hitting puts her more at risk for engaging in unsafe sexual behavior, teen pregnancy, and a tendency to choose aggressive, violent partners later in life.
“For much of human history, abused girls who experienced early puberty and engaged in earlier sexual behavior had more children than those whose pubertal timing was delayed. That’s irrespective of race,” Seltzer says. “Growing up in a difficult, highly unpredictable environment should favor early reproduction. It’s an evolutionary argument. Perhaps it’s better to reproduce now, rather than wait for a tomorrow that might never come, if the environment is that risky.”
Seltzer is expressing an idea that Belsky was the first to advance, highlighting the evolutionary basis of the reproductive response to exposure to adversity early in life. Indeed, as he points out, “There’s evidence that family conflict of a variety of kinds, including hitting, speeds up girls’ physical maturation. They enter puberty earlier. Girls who enter puberty earlier get involved in sex earlier. If you’re creating a stressful fearful environment in your home, that’s sending a signal to the kid’s body that their future is precarious,” he says. “It says to the child, ‘I may not endure to get to reproductive age. Therefore I should hurry and mature to increase the likelihood that I will be able to reproduce before I die.’ Living things have one fundamental goal, which is to pass on genes, to be reproduced. When that is threatened in a female child, she matures sooner. Plants do it. Animals do it. So do humans.”
This drive to reproduce early does not happen consciously in a child’s brain. “Nature hasn’t left that biological process to your conscious. The body senses the risk that ‘I’ve got to hurry up and develop because what’s most important is reproduction,’” Belsky says. As such, when a parent whups his or her daughter, “It may be the case that you’re the producers of their very behavior that you disdain. You have caused the very thing, or contributed to the very thing that provokes your hostility. That hostility continues to send the message to the child that ‘You don’t care about me. Your actions are telling my body this.’”
This, of course, is a scenario that few, if any, parents consider when they decide to hit their daughters in the name of discipline. But the science is clear.
Seltzer asks people to “admit to themselves and others that a behavior they’ve already engaged in has caused harm to someone they love. Frankly, I don’t know if all forms of physical punishment are permanently harmful to all children. It’s certainly possible that some such punishment, especially if rare and not severe, won’t do much in the long term. If it is possible that physical punishment, however culturally condoned, may be causing early puberty and sexual behavior in girls . . . is it worth the risk for your daughter?”
The irony is that so many parents whup their kids thinking it will keep them from being “bad” and prevent these very behaviors. All children need lessons about appropriate behavior, but discipline that rewires children’s physical and mental hard drives damages their ability to function in healthy ways. And parents who are concerned about their daughters’ healthy mental, emotional, and sexual development might want to consider the scientific evidence that spanking is not the best way to “train up” a girl to develop healthy, happy relationships at an appropriate age and stage of life.
Like black parents’ determination to disprove white stereotypes about black male “thugs” and protect their sons from police, the judge, and a life of crime, the determination to beat the sexuality and the potential reinforcement of disreputable stereotypes out of their daughters has long-term consequences, and causes emotional, physical, and bodily scars. It contributes to a culture that denies violence against black girls and women, which equates physical and sexual abuse with love, and otherwise renders our bodies and sexuality as objects of shame and pathology deserving of discipline and punishment.
Excerpted from Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America by Stacey Patton (Beacon Press, 2017). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.