To smack or not to smack

Okay, I am going to just say it, I don’t believe in smacking. I know a lot of people might disagree with me but after working with children for more than 20 years and studying Infant Mental Health I believe (and research shows) that smacking is not an effective method of discipline.

In these current times and with the knowledge we have about children, it is difficult to reconcile how smacking a child could possibly teach them the difference between right and wrong. We’ve spend years and years trying to grow our children into functioning, polite, well-rounded little individuals who don’t hit other children or behave in a way that is not socially acceptable. To them we are role-models, we are the primary adults in their lives, we are their educators and their protectors. They trust us completely and depend solely upon us.  Why then would we encourage a form of discipline on a child who is vulnerable?

Is using this compulsive reaction to smack a great way to respond to a situation that really requires some thought? What you say to your child or how you respond to something they have done creates the foundation on how they see themselves now and in their future. I think how you discipline your child, like other major milestones in a child’s life, is something parents should discuss together. When the child is young it is important to come up with a strategy that both parents will use when needed.

Children are designed to push us and push boundaries that is how they learn. So you need to come up with a strategy that is effective, has a long lasting effect and allows a child to understand (as much as they can) what they may have done wrong and why they are being punished.

I have asked many parents over the years about how they felt after they had smacked their child and nine times out of ten they always say that they felt awful. They then apologised to the child and spent the rest of the day compensating for that moment.

There are many ways you can teach a child right from wrong such as putting in boundaries and consequences for actions but it doesn’t have to be with smacking. Dr Justin Coulson from Happy Families has the research to support this line of thinking. On his blog “The ugly truth about hitting our kids (part 1 and part 2),” Justin cites recent research in the journal, Paediatrics, which indicates that children who are spanked are at a greater likelihood of developing aggressive behaviours themselves.

Another research article explained that “smacking kids is positively related to what psychologists refer to as ‘externalising’ behaviour.’  That is, behaviour related to acting out, being aggressive or oppositional, or even being hyperactive.  The same study showed spanking was associated with increased levels of anxiety, depressive characteristics, and withdrawal.”

There are some very effective ways of disciplining children rather than smacking but I understand in the heat of the moment, it can be difficult. So take a deep breath and think about things before you act. Here are some ideas on managing toddler behaviour constructively:

  • Always use positive language when you’re asking them not to do something this puts the focus on what you DO want them to do and takes the focus off the thing that you don’t want them to do.
  • Try not to take their behaviour personally. Children don’t misbehave because they dislike you. They do it because they are unclear of the boundaries and need some limits set.
  • ‘No’ is an overused word that doesn’t give your child much information. It’s better to tell them what you do want to do rather than want you don’t want them to do. E.g. “I need you to stop throwing the ball in the house please. Balls are for outside.”
  • Always speak calmly to your child when correcting them or asking them to do something. This shows them you are in-charge and confidant. If you lose it so will they!
  • Try not to lecture your child will switch-off after the first minute. Be matter-of-fact and say things like, “I won’t let you do that. If you throw that again I will take it away”.
  • Use natural consequences. A toddler learns discipline best when they experience natural consequences for their behaviour rather than a confusing punishment like time-out. If a child throws food, mealtime is over. If a child refuses to put their shoes on, we can’t go to the park today. These consequences teach your child the concept of fairness.

Don’t get angry when your child cries. Crying is a reasonable, emotional response. Being a toddler can be a time of intense and overwhelming feelings.  Children need to express anger, frustration, etc. especially if they don’t get what they want. Give your child the freedom to express their feelings without judgment.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.