Recently, I was called to comment, on a morning TV show, about new research on smacking. In a sleepy stupor, I agreed to be ready in ten minutes (makeup took priority over food). There was no time to discuss the story until I was in the car being driven to the studio.
I was told that the research showed that up to 90% of Australian mothers believed that smacking was acceptable. Younger mothers were more in favor of smacking than older mothers.
I was gob-smacked. I had naively thought there was more awareness about the effects of smacking. For instance, children learn what they live, so a smacked child is more likely to use aggression against her peers. I also thought people realized that corporal punishment, or physical punishment, is a very short term solution based on children being afraid of us, and that it is all too easy to hit too hard when we are at our wit’s end. Besides, what do we do as our children grow too big to catch and smack?
For me, not smacking is rather like learning a second language. When my first child started to get into things that were unsafe I was at a loss. I wondered, ‘Should I smack him?’ I couldn’t bring myself to smack this beautiful little person who, to me, seemed to be ‘exploring’ rather than ‘naughty’. I simply had no other resources in my parenting toolbox, though, because that is what I had been exposed to as a child.
This realization led me to parenting courses where I learned about alternatives, such as understanding my child’s development so my expectations were more in sync with his abilities, and how to implement positive discipline. I also sought out support groups where I saw gentle parenting modeled and I could discuss strategies with other parents.
Despite my efforts to learn this new language of gentle parenting, in times of stress I have reverted to my ‘mother tongue’ and occasionally smacked my kids. In an incident that has become part of our family folklore, one of my sons was watching an Olympic boxing match on television. He was getting quite carried away and shouting excitedly at the screen. I walked over and switched off the television. My son reached forward and turned it back on (he was sitting eyeball to eyeball with the set). I reacted, faster than any champion boxer, with a slap on his arm as I yelled, ‘Leave the bloody thing off. I hate violence!’ It took me more than a few seconds to realize why my quick-witted kid was sitting there laughing at me in a state of near hysteria.
I strongly believe that good discipline is about maintaining our own dignity and our child’s dignity. Smacking does neither. I am bewildered by the logic that if an older child lashes out at a younger one, this is ‘bullying’ and how, at a certain age, hitting another person becomes ‘assault’. We certainly wouldn’t condone being slapped by our partners, yet we can accept a parent smacking a child.
There’s no point clinging to the justification, ‘I was smacked, and there is nothing wrong with me’; how would you know, anyway? Instead, we each need to do an inventory of our parenting toolboxes. We can ask ourselves, ‘As we’ve grown up, what have we learned and absorbed from our own parents and our culture? What would be useful to keep and use, and what will we discard? This will vary for each of us but, by being conscious of our parenting choices, perhaps our own children will not need to experience non-violent parenting as a second language. Instead, it could be their mother tongue.
To smack or not to smack children
Let’s look at the pros and cons of spanking children to discipline them or try to correct and control their behavior. We also need to understand what we risk when we hit them.
Why smacking children is good
Some people – possibly many people, depending on the country you’re in – believe that smacking children will teach them good behavior. Most parents who smack their kids do it believing their child receives appropriate and effective discipline. Most parents who smack their children also love them very much and actually believe spanking makes a positive difference, when in fact it’s quite the opposite.
We learn to become parents from the way we were parented. Most of the responses we learn at a young age become automatic responses in adulthood. If we don’t see any obvious harm from our parents’ ways of applying discipline it’s quite likely, once we have our own family, we will repeat the same behaviors, without question.
‘My parents smacked me as a child and I turned out okay’ and ‘I was a very naughty child and, thanks to my parents’ smacking, I corrected my behaviors’ are common sentences we hear from parents who believe smacking children is alright.
These feelings are understandable. Many adults believe a certain degree of physical punishment is necessary. If you’re reading this, let me congratulate you, as it means you’re having doubts about whether smacking your child is the right approach to discipline your little one.
Effects of smacking a child
Any corrective measure is meant to change inappropriate behaviors. Let’s see the effects smacking has on children – in the short, mid, and long term.
short term effects
Smacking might seem an effective method in the short term as the child tends to correct her behavior immediately – especially in early childhood or when smacking is new to the child. This is usually why parents smack their children in the first place. They’re stressed, they’ve taken a lot on board and their child is really challenging them. The first smack often happens as the parent loses control and the child stops doing what was driving the parent nuts.
Then the guilt kicks in. You both take a moment to say how much you love one another, and the smacking doesn’t seem as harmful any longer. And you swear you’ll never do it again.
mid term effects
Once corporal punishment has been integrated by the child, there’s an increased risk of the child growing up feeling insecure, and having problems with understanding and developing secure attachments – not only to her parents but to loved ones. Spanking and smacking teach children that physical violence is an appropriate behavior in a loving relationship and, as a result, the child’s behavior towards other children will be compromised.
Her cognitive development, even her capacity for self regulation, will be altered, especially when the child has other caregivers who are not her parents. The child comes to understand that smacking is the right way to go when another person’s behavior is not the one she desires. At the same time, the caregivers are telling her it’s the wrong approach. The child cannot understand why her parents’ actions are ‘right’ but, when she does the same thing, it’s the ‘wrong’ thing to do. Her feelings of frustration, low self-esteem, and anger begin to rise.
long term effects
Research shows that children smacked during childhood will carry the consequences into adulthood. If the consequences of the physical abuse are not dealt with, they can be the source of mental health problems.
Smacking children might seem harmless and this belief is what leads most parents towards using physical punishment as discipline. If this parental misbehavior isn’t stopped, when smacked children become teenagers they’ll struggle to manage their anger and suffer greatly. They’ll feel no adult understands them because, on the one hand, they learned from their parents that violence is the way to deal with unwanted behavior and, on the other hand, they’ll see it isn’t accepted by the majority of adults involved in their learning and development.
These teenagers will grow into adults who have been physically punished for their misbehavior as children. They have normalized the idea that violence, punishment, physical and verbal abuse are part of a normal, healthy family life. They will also look for these kind of relationships as adults. Their mental health will be compromised and their frustration when dealing with these issues will make them very unhappy. They might even develop unwanted behaviors that could lead to abuse of others, substance abuse, or being abused by others.
Why you shouldn’t smack your child
No one said parenting was easy. All children need to be disciplined. As they grow, on many occasions they will make wrong choices and wrong decisions. There are, however, much more effective forms of teaching children about appropriate behaviors than the use of corporal punishment.
For further information, the article Smacking Is Proven To Be Ineffective – 11 Reasons Why might be of help.
Is smacking child abuse?
The Oxford language dictionary defines abuse as ‘treatment (of a person or an animal) with cruelty or violence, especially regularly or repeatedly’.
Many parents might think child abuse is a strong concept for a smack on the bum when the toddler is reaching to grab a forbidden object she’s been told a million times she cannot touch.
Smacking a child is an act of violence, even if it’s not physically painful. The meaning of such action is what really harms the child’s mental health. When a child suffers physical punishment she doesn’t learn what was wrong with the behavior. Instead, she learns that the use of physical force is acceptable to make a point. She learns that people who love you can physically abuse you at times and that, somehow, it’s okay, when it’s really not.
You might find the article Smacking Children – Is Smacking Children Okay? helpful.
Disciplining your child without smacking
There are effective ways of teaching your child appropriate behavior without spanking or hitting your child. As with any other habit, it takes a while to unlearn and develop a new one. Until you know how to change your kid’s challenging behavior without the use of corporal punishment just have one thing clear: Stop hitting your child. You might need to leave the room or leave your child alone in a safe space until you regain your cool –even if she’s angry and screaming the place down. Keep in mind you’re not to hit your child ever again.
When your child is showing an unwanted behavior, get down to her level, make eye contact, and firmly say ‘No’. She might try to hit you, as a protection mechanism, and that’s expected, because it’s what she’s learned. Protect yourself and keep saying ‘No’ to her misbehavior.
Be assertive and sympathetic. Validate her feelings with sentences like: ‘I understand you’re angry because you don’t like going to school but it’s important that you go because…’ or ‘I like that teddy too. I’d love to take him home with us but we cannot buy everything we like’, then offer your open arms or a hug, as an alternative to her loss. Most children and toddlers, in fact everyone loves having their emotions validated.
Even if children cannot have what they want, being understood in their frustration by a parent is everything a child needs when unhappy. Just keep being consistent in your approach and you’ll see a rapid improvement in her behavior.
Validating a child’s feelings while explaining why you’re saying ‘No’ and offering alternatives is a much kinder approach than trying to change behavior with punishment and control. Your children will feel secure with you and will develop a secure attachment with you, based on love and mutual respect. Being brought up this way will set them up for a secure, mentally healthy, and loving adult life.
The article How To Transform Your Child’s Challenging Behavior will give you some helpful tips for understanding and changing your little one’s behavior.