Instead of a smack what?

  • By Robin Barker
  • 12 May, 2017

             Avoiding Smacking

Judging by the comments on my Facebook page not everyone wants to avoid smacking their children, however I meet many who do.

It’s impossible to talk about ways to avoid smacking without talking about discipline in general.
What follows is a summary of the basics of discipline. It is a brief look at proven ways to help children behave the way we’d like them to without resorting to giving them a good smack.
For more in-depth information on discipline, there are many good books available (see bookshelf below for a few suggestions).

Most of us go into parenthood with barely a clue on discipline apart from what we’ve picked up from our own parents. This may have been great or terrible or something in between. Getting help from a book or an expert in the field can do a lot to smooth the path especially if, as is common, parents are not quite sure what they are doing.

          Why do parents smack?

  • Some parents smack sparingly in a cool-headed way as a last resort for things they judge as serious misbehaviour or to get their child’s attention when his or her safety is at risk. They smack because they believe physical punishment is more effective than any of the other alternatives offered up by child discipline experts and researchers.
  • More commonly, parents smack impulsively because:
They have reached the end of their tether and are exhausted, angry and worried about a whole lot of things that have nothing to do with their children (relationship, mortgage stress, work commitments).

They don’t know what else to do.

They feel pressured by other parents to smack, for example, toddler bites another toddler at playgroup.

Frightened parents smack when their child runs onto the road, tries to touch a hot stove, climbs up onto something dangerous.


       Ideas for parents who don’t want to smack.

               The basics

  • 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 are often way over the top especially during the toddler years.
    For example, if a toddler keeps wanting to stick his finger into a power-point it’s helpful to know that this is normal exploratory toddler behaviour. Smacking him for putting his finger in the hole gives him a massive amount of attention for something his parents want him to stop doing.
    It’s more rational to quietly put safety covers on the power-points until he’s old enough to understand the danger. He’ll quickly become bored and find something safe to occupy himself with instead.
  • 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.

            General strategies to help 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. As we all know, inner control doesn’t happen overnight 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.


                    Specific behaviour management techniques

            • Positive reinforcement. Catch them doing good but don’t overdo it. Quiet acknowledgement is better than lots of noisy acclamation.
            • Minimise, better still avoid, negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is things like shouting, smacking, banging the wooden spoon on the bench, nagging and making loud threats (especially over-the-top threats that will not be carried out).

            • Go for warnings (prompt, exact and followed through).

            • Aim for consistency as much as possible.

            • Help children to avoid situations and activities that lead to misbehaviour (particularly important in the toddler years).
            •  Consequences for misbehaviour are essential:
              Toddlers and young children

              Pretend to ignore
              Older children and adolescents

              Remove privileges (and technology)
              Allow for natural consequences resulting from negative behaviour
              Give additional chores
              Ground from certain activities
            •   Most importantly be a role model. Children act out what they see and hear and older children have built in hypocrisy-detectors that are always on the alert for adults not practising what they preach.


                     *A word about time-out

            Because the concept of ‘time-out’ is widely misunderstood and misused I’m including a little more information on the topic. Time-out properly used can contribute a great deal towards helping children regulate their behaviour.

            Time-out is not punishment. It is not a replacement for smacking. It has no deterrent value. The aim of time-out - starting in the toddler years - is to remove the toddler, child, adolescent from any attention – positive or negative – for a very short period (when they are young) to longer periods (when they are older).

            Its value as a threat is negligible. If time-out is used as a threat in the way a smack is used, the toddler will grow into a child/adolescent who will not give two hoots about time-out, threaten all you like.

                    So, what’s the point of time-out?

            Time-out gives parents something concrete to do when they cannot ignore what is going on, for example, the toddler or child hurts someone else or damages property.

             It is a formal way of removing the toddler or child from her parent’s attention

             Eventually, if used correctly, older children and adolescents will take themselves off to time-out while they recover their equilibrium.

                    For successful time-out:

            Time-out should be reserved for serious misdemeanours not run of the mill irritations or annoying behaviour that can be ignored or diverted.If over-used its effectiveness dims.

             For time-out to have the desired effect (change the behaviour) the parent, after giving the toddler/child a very short reason for the time-out, must withdraw his or her attention and stay bland, colourless and temporarily unavailable.
            Thrusting a toddler/child into time-out in a fit of anger provides attention. Talking to her while she is there provides attention. Going on endlessly when time-out is over provides attention.

            When time-out is over the parent needs to change from being bland and uninteresting to warm and welcoming. The toddler/child must be redirected into a new activity or given a change of scenery. Allowing her to continue where she left off is asking for trouble.

                   Final word on time-out

            If every day is a constant round of threats and ineffective time-outs it’s time for a rethink. Other strategies should be used for minor misdemeanours.

             Children need variety in their days, a reasonable routine, certainty and, depending on their age, supervision especially when they are with other children. Allowances should be made for tiredness, hunger, illness and life events that impact on their behaviour (new baby, childcare, school, separation/divorce).

            Most importantly, they need positive time-in with their parents so they aren’t forced to get attention through undesirable behaviour.

            Catch them doing good


            • Biddulph Steve (psychologist), The Complete Secrets of Happy Children , HarperCollins, UK, 2012
            • Green Christopher (paediatrician), The New Toddler Taming , Ebury Publishing, London UK 2006
            • Green Christopher, Beyond Toddlerdom, Ebury Publishing, London, UK 2000
            • Barker Robin (child and family health nurse), The Mighty Toddler , Pan Macmillan, Australia, 2009
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