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
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.
- 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
- 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
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.
*A word about
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
Time-out is not
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
So, what’s the point
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
Eventually, if used correctly, older children and
adolescents will take themselves off to time-out while they recover their
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
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,
Most importantly, they need positive time-in with their
parents so they aren’t forced to get attention through undesirable behaviour.