I am interested in your knowing that, if the law continues to inform you that you may not smack your child (or, at the very least, ought not to smack your child), there is no great loss to your ability to effectively parent your child. We don’t necessarily need to smack to show our children that they have overstepped the mark. We don’t need to smack our child to emphasise that a behaviour is unacceptable. And we don’t need to smack to show them “Who’s boss”.
Diane! Have You Ever Smacked Your Children?
Yes! I have. (Bear in mind that, at the time of writing, my children are aged 37, 35 and 24 so the question of obeying or breaking the law did not come into the equation.) I smacked before I knew what I know now.
I learned that, with good children who usually co-operate, a smack will usually result in their crying for half-an-hour, sleeping for two hours and then behaving for the next three months. The only reason they got themselves into that situation was probably because they were over-tired or overwrought.
With strong-willed children, smacking occasionally works, but more often does not, it upsets them but it rarely changes their mind. More often you get a resentful child who may co-operate briefly with on-the-surface behaviour, but is more likely to resort to sneaky sabotage.
The more experienced I have become, both as a parent and as a Family Therapist, the less I have smacked.
What’s wrong with smacking?
The first problem with smacking is that, even if it were not banned, there is a limit to how often or how hard you can smack. Let’s look at a frequent example in a parent’s life.
You ask your child to put some blocks in the block box, or some books back on the shelf, or some cups on the sink or to give you a hand with the dishes…or some other small request that your child could easily and rapidly do if she were of a mind to.
You ask. She doesn’t want to. You ask more loudly. She still doesn’t want to. You offer her a smack. She opts for the smack and then says, “That didn’t hurt.” You produce a smack that does. Her eyes water but she holds her ground and says “I’m still not going to do it.” You smack once more. She cries, but she is still not going to do it.
At this point, one of two things may happen. One, you lose your temper – not surprisingly – and you wind up smacking much harder than you intended. Most parents find this dreadfully upsetting. Your child is distraught, (possibly crying in her room), you are distraught (possibly crying in your room). The blocks/books/cups/dishes are doing fine. They are just sitting there. At the end of an episode like this it is unlikely that you will have the heart to go and insist that she takes two cups to the sink. You both wind up upset and resentful.
The other option, having smacked a couple of times, you don’t have the heart to continue. You just cannot bear to smack any more. You feel discouraged. Your child may feel unhappy or feel she has won. The blocks/books/cups/dishes still sit there. The atmosphere is awful. Your other children are watching and learning interesting things.
We parent on our own
Smacking worked a lot better in the times that parents were entitled to smack children and teachers were entitled to cane pupils. It worked at a time when it was horrific for a child to hit back at a parent, or a pupil to strike a teacher. School bullying was dealt with by caning the offenders.
Everyone agreed that children should do as a parent asked. If a parent asked a child to put on their shoes and socks, they did so with the backing of the extended family, the School, the Church, the State and the local policemen.
These days, I often feel that we are parenting on our own. If we insist that our children put on their shoes and socks – or some other small task – there’s always someone who will question whether or not we have the right to do so, or whether we should have asked in a more positive way or whether we should try harder to make the task more enjoyable or whether or not they needed to wear shoes and socks in the first place. (Clearly that is not the person who will be nursing them when they have pneumonia or holding them down at A & E while they have stitches put in their feet!)
We parent in a violent era
We live in a different era. Our children see violence day in, day out on television, as part of computer games and on the big screen. Apart from fiction, they see endless examples of real life violence as well. They see violence portrayed as the simplest way to force you own way or opinion on anyone – and to be the hero or heroine.
We live in such violent times that it behooves us to model ways of resolving issues to our children other than hitting, them or anyone else.
Whether we want to or not, we are a role model to our children. They learn their good behaviour and they learn their bad behaviour through watching ours. It is hard for them to escape the lesson that, if you don’t fancy someone’s behaviour, the way to deal with it is through smacking them.
Let’s not be hypocrites
One of my favourite cartoons shows a father with his son across his knee, paddling him while saying “That will teach you not to hit other people.”
Today, I can think of so many better ways I could have dealt with situations other than smacking. Certainly, I could have behaved better than the yelling and screaming that preceded and accompanied most smacking in our household.
Smacking is not a good look
I learned something else about smacking. Vernon and I were and are loving and caring parents. In “the smacking days” we probably used smacking about equally. I learned that, when I was the one doing the smacking, it felt more-or-less OK. When I listened to Vernon doing the smacking it felt horrible and, definitely, when I see an unknown parent in the supermarket swiping at a child’s legs or bottom, it just looked like a larger person hitting a smaller person.
Smacking is not the only way to get obedience and respect
I was particularly fortunate in having parents who never so much as “flicked” me. They were very strict and I had enormous love and respect for them. I just wish I could remember how they exercised such tremendous control that, most of the time, it never occurred to me to be non-compliant. I was certainly left with the legacy that it is possible to be strong and loving parents without ever having to strike a child. I wish I had their track record.
Diane! Have things changed in your Private Practice?
Yes and No. Yes, in that, since the law change, fewer parents are using smacking as a way of controlling (or, if you want to be more politically correct, guiding) their children’s behaviour. While the law has made little difference, in the short term, in protecting children from abuse and harm – and these are extreme parent behaviours – it has influenced good parents to look and succeed at alternate ways of disciplining their children.
Will giving up on smacking stop child abuse?
While it is not guaranteed that there will be direct cause and effect, we have an interesting example when we look at smoking. The tougher the laws have become about smoking, the less we see smoking in public places and the more unacceptable smoking has become. Of course there are still lots of people who smoke – and smoking is not illegal. But the banning of smoking in public and the increasing publicity about the harm of smoking has lead to much less smoking and in making smoking much less socially acceptable.
I expect that making it illegal to smack children will have an effect on its acceptability and will lead to a drop in the number of parents who use it. Ultimately, it will have a “brush-on” effect and may well, in time, lead potentially abusive parents to explore alternatives.
Are parents getting softer?
Are parents getting softer? Actually no. While it was still legal to smack, I was seeing many parents who were finding smacking ineffective for their feisty, strong-willed children and were seeking better alternatives. The big difference I see is that fewer parents are beginning by saying, “We’ve tried smacking and it hasn’t worked.” They are more likely to have tried every positive means at their disposal and still be struggling with their child’s behaviour.
My job hasn’t changed that much. I am still privileged to be working with parents to help them find effective means of setting boundaries around unacceptable behaviours. The sole difference is that I no longer have to justify why I am not recommending smacking.
Last Word About Smacking
As we leave the subject of smacking, I will leave the last word to Robert. These two stories happened when he was about four.
He was guilty of some misdemeanour and so I raced into the kitchen yelling, “I’m going to get the wooden spoon.” When I appeared in his bedroom, waving the said object in a threatening manner, he quietly observed, “That’s not a spoon. It’s a spatula.” Undeterred by the precision of his vocabulary, I took a swipe at him. His version is “Remember the day you broke the spatula on me.” My defence is that it had been used for stirring breakfast porridge for ten years, had been wet and dried out hundreds of times. It sheared at the first little pat!!
And the second story? At one desperate stage, I stormed at him, “You’re going to get a good hiding.” His response was, “There is no such thing as a good hiding.” He was right, but it probably didn’t save him that day!!