Are you a smacker? Here's how to stop

Kinderling News & Features

The issue of whether to smack is particularly intense in the first five years as this is a time of tremendous developmental changes in children which most parents – at least some of the time - find exhausting and frustrating.

 Despite the growing belief that smacking children is wrong – it is now illegal in schools and 52 countries, large numbers of parents still smack their children.

Many parents feel guilty and embarrassed about the fact that they smack; others believe that used sparingly and as a last resort it is an acceptable, effective deterrent to serious misbehaviour, or that it is okay when it is limited to drawing their children’s attention to their safety and survival. 

Why do parents smack?

  • Because they have reached the end of their tether
  • Because they feel pressured by other parents, for example, when their toddler bites another toddler at playgroup.
  • Frightened parents smack when their child narrowly escapes some life-threatening event.
  • Some parents smack as a planned consequence for certain misbehaviour because they believe it is more effective than other strategies, for example, time-out. Or because smacking was used as a ‘disciplinary strategy’ by their parents and as they believe it did them no harm (maybe even some good) they are carrying on the tradition. 

How effective is smacking?

  • Smacking may have an immediate and satisfying effect for the adult in times of stress.
  • The emotional impact of a smack, especially if it is used only occasionally, may bring about a dramatic change momentarily (the tantrum or the whining comes to an immediate halt). But smacking rapidly becomes less effective the more it is used and doesn’t teach children different behaviour in the long-term.
  • Some parents believe that a short, sharp smack is preferable to nagging, putting children in the bedroom, emotional heaviness and shouting. But it doesn’t make sense justifying smacking because it is the best of a bad lot when there are safer and more effective ways of teaching children to behave.
  • Smacking quickly becomes counterproductive because it gives children the wrong kind of attention. After a while they become immune to the smacks (toddlers are likely to hit their parents back) and it encourages them not only to hit other kids, but eventually to smack their own kids.
  • Constant smacking increases children’s anger, humiliates them and usually makes parents feel guilty. Children very quickly pick up on the guilty feelings, which decreases the effectiveness of the parent’s overall discipline and limit setting. 

Ideas for parents who don’t want to smack

  • Make a firm commitment with your partner that smacking is not going to be part of your children’s family life. Not only is it ineffective but it sends the wrong messages – ‘I’m really bad’; ‘If they can do that so can I’; ‘Bigger and stronger lets you get away with more’.
  • Learn as much as you can about child development. This is crucial as adults’ expectations of their children’s behaviour is often way over the top especially during the toddler years.
  • Work on a united front with your partner in relation to how you propose to encourage your children to behave in acceptable ways. Children of all ages will play one parent off against the other if they think it will give them an advantage or prevent them having to pay the consequence for misbehaviour.

Listen to Robin Barker on Kinderling Conversation:

How to avoid smacking

Remember discipline is to lead, teach, guide and influence. Discipline is not about punishment. At its best discipline aims to teach children inner control. This takes a long time. Inner control doesn’t happen overnight (many adults never get there), and smacking doesn’t speed the process up. The aim of discipline is to help children decide they want to do the right thing because it makes them feel happier, not because they are frightened they’ll get a smack.

  • Punishment (or a consequence) is needed sometimes but as much as possible should be used as a teaching strategy so that eventually the child will change his behaviour not to avoid being punished (or smacked) but because he feels inside that it’s the right thing to do.
  • Contrary to popular belief, deciding not to smack doesn’t mean condoning unacceptable behaviour. It is crucial for parents to set limits, have clear ideas about right and wrong and to communicate this with words and actions in as fair and reasonable way as possible.
  • Parents who are floundering and lashing out need to be encouraged to get help. A helpline, family doctor, child and family health nurse, the neighbour, a grandparent, a friend.
  • Learn to deal with conflict. All parents vacillate at times about setting limits because of the inevitable conflict that will ensue. While it is obviously not good to base family life on conflict it’s healthy for children to experience some conflict, so they can learn how to test themselves and their limits and handle the normal conflict that arises in life.
  • Work out if the behaviour really is a problem. Decide what’s important and let small things go through to the keepers.
  • Rituals, routines, certainty, the background mood and atmosphere of the home all contribute to helping children behave the way we want them to, these things need working on all the time.