Being human together. Showing up for what matters.

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Admittedly, this is a rather contentious topic. A family member emailed me recently following a conversation she’d had, and it prompted me to write this post. In the line of work I’m in (working with families, often with young children), smacking is certainly a topic we talk about from time to time.

Full disclosure: I was a child that was smacked by my parents, on occasion.  In our generation, most of us were. I don’t have fond memories of being smacked (does anyone?) – but nor are my memories traumatic. I still managed to achieve well academically, I didn’t turn to drugs or crime, I love my parents dearly, and have a warm adult relationship with them to this day.

The great thing about the passage of time is we learn more things.  Research into effective (and ineffective) parenting practices has moved along from when my parent’s generation were raising kids.  We simply know things now that weren’t known then – and that means we can make different choices.

Parenting is a really tough gig – and our most automatic style of parenting comes from that which was modelled to us (ie we tend to do the things our own folks did to us).  For sure, we make choices like “I will never do X, like my parents did”, but then we’re parenting by “try not to be like X”, rather than “be like Y”.  If we haven’t yet figured out what “be like Y” looks like, then in times of stress we are more likely to “be like X” by default.

I’ve worked with countless families in the many years I’ve been a clinical psychologist.  I am yet to meet a parent I can’t relate to; I am yet to meet one who is not working hard to do the best job they can to raise healthy, well-adjusted kids.  As part of that, some of those parents smack – and I’m not interested in parents being ashamed about that – it’s not something to hide away in the dark.  However, like all parenting decisions, it is something to evaluate and reflect upon.

There is plenty of comprehensive research into the impact of smacking children. A synopsis can be found here.  A brief summary of the key points are:

“Research shows that spanking corrects misbehavior. But it also shows that spanking does not work better than other modes of correction, such as time out, explaining, and depriving a child of privileges. Moreover, the research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a dating or marital partner. Spanking also slows down mental development and lowers the probability of a child doing well in school… More than 100 studies have detailed these side effects of spanking, with more than 90 percent agreement among them. There is probably no other aspect of parenting and child behavior where the results are so consistent.”

Along with the research, here’s why I don’t advocate for smacking:

  • The values around how people want to be “mum” or “dad” are pretty similar among every parent I’ve ever met.  They include (amongst others) being: loving, welcoming, supportive, approachable, trustworthy, respectful, and kind. Smacking is a behaviour that is difficult to reconcile with these parenting values. This means if a parent DOES choose to smack their kids, they’re likely to feel pretty crap about it. It’s unlikely to take their relationship with their kids in the direction they want it to be going.
  • There are other non-violent discipline choices that are just as effective (if not more so), that ARE in line with these parenting values (see info below, and stay tuned for further posts).
  • The idea that it’s okay to smack kids if the result of their behaviour would otherwise be that they got hurt (ie run on a road, touch a hot oven) just doesn’t stack up.  If we think our child can’t understand “no” or “stop”, how are they meant to make sense of “my parent who loves me sometimes hits me for my own good, but it’s not a strategy I’m allowed to use when I don’t like something my friends are doing”?
  • I’m interested in parents teaching children how to successfully track behaviour to consequences.  Consider the following example:  Jenny and Samantha are both curious toddlers, and in their respective homes, both make a dash for the hot oven.  Jenny’s mum gives her a quick smack.  Samantha’s mum rushes to take her hand.  She takes Samantha’s hand near the oven, maybe opens the door for a burst of hot air, and uses the proximity of the oven to teach Samantha about “hot”.  The next day, the ovens are on again, only this time the mothers are caught up changing pooey nappies on babies.  Jenny, who has learned through compliance (“obey mum”) seizes the opportunity to explore the oven.  Samantha, who has learned through tracking, gives is a wide berth.  If children can track, we can be confident that they will likely make good decisions even when parents are not present (I’ll return to this topic in a future post).

Go Further Now

I will post more, over time, on using a guidance-approach to parenting.  However, a useful handbook to get started with is: Every Parent: A Guide to Constructive Parenting by Matthew Sanders.

You could also speak with your child health nurse, daycare, or school about the availability of parenting courses such as:

  • Triple P (Positive Parenting Program)
  • Circle of Security

See also:

Disciplining Children Effectively

How to get children to behave without hitting them

How to Handle Your Anger at Your Child

Risks of Harm from Spanking Confirmed by Analysis of Five Decades of Research

Have an Opinion?

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  Post a reply below.

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