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To smack or not to smack


How to discipline children in today’s fast-paced world is a dilemma for many parents. What seemed straightforward a generation or two ago is no longer the case. Yet, corporal punishment continues to be popular. Possibly because many parents interpret their own childhood experience of physical punishment positively, approaches based on parental rights and authority maintain their appeal.

Perhaps the most seductive aspect of the traditional method is that it has been shown to have an instantaneous effect on discouraging undesirable behaviour. Not only that, but it can have a cathartic effect on the frustrated, stressed parent! However, research shows there are a number of problematic aspects to the use of harsh physical punishment:

  • lasting behavioural change is not achieved
  • negative effects on children’s cognition, emotional and language development, academic progress and parental attachment
  • higher levels of stress and trauma in children
  • disruptive, anti-social behaviour may develop
  • long-term outcomes typically include mental health issues, for instance, internalising problems, (leading to depression), or externalising problems, (leading to aggression), and increased vulnerability to substance and alcohol abuse in adolescence and adulthood.

On the other hand, the jury is still out on whether milder, controlled and less hostile physical punishment is harmful to the same extent. What is clear is that research does not support the notion that corporal punishment is better than any non-physical means of discipline.

Furthermore, there are undesirable messages attendant upon corporal punishment. What do children learn in the process of being punished? Critics argue that children learn not that their behaviour is unacceptable and why, rather that they should avoid doing something while an adult is present in order to avoid the punishment. Beyond that, they learn that violence is the way to solve problems.

It’s also worth asking what children do not learn as a consequence. What is omitted in the application of this strategy is the opportunity to develop moral reasoning and self-control. Given our concern about levels of violence both within our communities and in cyberspace, this would seem a worthy aspiration.

So where does this leave us? Corporal punishment is but one of a number of behavioural management strategies available to parents. Alternative techniques in current use to discourage misbehaviour include:

  • providing consequences
  • withdrawal of privileges
  • exclusion (time out) or quiet time (time in being cuddled or activity with adult nearby)
  • setting and enforcing boundaries; saying ‘no’ firmly but avoiding hostility.

The key to achieving desirable behaviour over the longer term is the quality of our relationships. The following factors contribute to this:

  • spending focused time together in activities of the child’s choosing, while demonstrating patience, support and warmth
  • educating ourselves about appropriate expectations in line with the child’s level of development for example, aggression in toddlers is normal, peaking at 24–42 months, also a child’s ability to concentrate when following adult-directed activities can be estimated at three minutes per year of age, hence being still can be difficult
  • being warm, affectionate, consistent and encouraging
  • minimising the need for discipline with preventive strategies, such as providing high interest, novel toys on occasions when coping with the environment will be challenging, as in train or plane travel, or planning brief excursions to retail environments when the child is neither fatigued nor irritable, involving the child in the experience by finding and placing suitable objects in the shopping trolley
  • providing appropriate, active supervision and involvement in activities, avoiding distractions of technology such as mobile phones so the parent is completely available
  • explaining why certain behaviours are inappropriate, including their impact on others; teaching empathy by supporting children in identifying emotions and responding sensitively
  • offering choices – for example, to wear the red or the green top, but not go without a top
  • modelling appropriate behaviours and responses, such as providing support and guidance with alternative strategies when frustration occurs
  • redirecting the young child to other activities when tensions arise
  • developing rules that are appropriate for children’s developmental level.

Raising children can be a stressful and emotionally demanding experience. As a community, we can recognise the needs of parents and children for support. Adopting approaches that require more concentrated effort, time, planning and consistency could well be a challenge, but the potential dividend on our investment would be substantial: the opportunity to teach children internalised self-regulation, ethical choices and consideration for others and ultimately, to interrupt the generational cycle of violence in child discipline.

Louise Laskey is a lecturer in developmental and educational psychology at Deakin University. This article is based upon a piece originally published in The Conversation.


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