Life & Style | Parenting

Debate: Is it ok to smack your child?

One of the most controversial issues in child rearing, spanking for many parents continues to be an acceptable form of discipline. But could that little slap be damaging your child long term? Two mums argue it out

  • Aquarius magazine
  • Published: 11:50 September 2, 2012
  • Aquarius

  • Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Two mums weight in on this month's hot debate.

YES

Louisa Wilkins, mother of two, aged six and three

As surprising as it may seem, I could fill this column with studies and statistics defending the point that smacking children is OK. Such as the one from Calvin College in the US, which found that children who were smacked when they were young grew up to be more successful than those who weren’t smacked. Or the poll reported on CNN, which found that 74 per cent of parents think that smacking is OK for children aged one to three.

Or I could give you countless quotes from adults who, like me, were smacked as children and who grew up to be fine, fully functioning adults who do not go through their lives punching anybody who gets in their way (as anti-smackers would suggest), who can use words to communicate, and who – despite the smacking – have wonderful, loving, respectful relationships with their parents.

But I won’t do either of those. Instead, I will simply suggest that how a person parents their child is their own business. Obviously, we all agree that a child must not be hurt, scared, neglected, disrespected or abused by their parent, or by anyone. But trusting in the belief that most parents do not want to harm their child in any way, who are we to judge anyone else’s parenting? Raising my children is my job. My department. How I do it is my decision. And vice versa.

I’m not going to come into your house and tell you not to shout at your child, even though a study in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that yelling, and other forms of emotional abuse, were a more significant predictor of mental illness than sexual and physical abuse. I’m not going to start a witch-hunt if your child is overweight, even though the entire world knows that it means your child is more likely to get heart disease, diabetes and dementia, as well as being bullied, depressed and lonely.

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I won’t judge you if you let your child watch TV or play computer games for more than two hours a day, even though it is linked to high blood pressure, lower grades, obesity, behavioural and social problems, twice the risk of dying from practically anything, and severe mental and emotional impact.No. All I will say is, you do it your way, and I’ll do it mine.

I don’t beat my children – in my world, a beating and a smack on the rump are not two versions of the same action. As psychologist Aric Sigman, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society, said, “The idea that smacking and violence are on a continuum is a bizarre and fetished view of what punishment is for most parents. If it’s done judiciously by a parent who is normally affectionate and sensitive to their child, our society should not be up in arms about that. People should be taught to distinguish this from a punch in the face.” He later said, “I’m far more worried about the effects of coldness. The psychic damage is far worse.”

The truth is, I rarely smack my children but I have been known to. I’m not proud of it. It is what it is. I don’t think they hate me for it. They certainly don’t seem to. My children feel loved, witnessed and cherished every single day. I think, as long as a parent is getting that bit right, I’m not worried about whether they decide to smack their child, to give them sweets, or let them watch TV. I’m only concerned about how I’m doing with my own kids. Maybe you should be too.

NO

Kate Birch, mother of three, aged 15, 13 and six

Anyone who has read The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas will be aware of many of the arguments for and against smacking, and of people’s different views based on their age, background and childhood experiences. But I don’t think personal experience should come into it. The blinkered mantra that ‘it never did me any harm’ is not a sufficient argument.

 I was occasionally slapped as a child, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s OK, that it did any good or that it didn’t do me any lasting harm. But I’m not preaching to parents, I speak from bitter experience. A few years ago I smacked my then four-year-old after he walked out into a busy road in the UK. It was an instant reaction born of fear... the only time I have done it and the guilt and tears (my own) haunted me for days. I felt dreadful, only justified by the understanding that I was doing it for the right reasons even though the actual method was at fault.

The fact is, and I feel this even more strongly after that day, I don’t believe smacking is an effective form of discipline, and it can have lasting effects on your child. Even if, like me, you were brought up with the occasional spank, times and attitudes have changed and so, therefore, should behaviours. “Parents have access to more information about managing children’s behaviour now,” says Therese Sequeira, parenting educator at KidsFIRST. “There has been a lot of research into the effects of spanking children.

In short, hurting children in any way, physical or emotional, damages relationships between children and their parents and has an effect on how children learn to manage their own emotions with others. “In terms of decreasing misbehaviour long term, spanking is ineffective.

It can distract children from a misbehaviour but it doesn’t teach them positive strategies for handling conflict,” says Therese. “Spanking children does not encourage positive relationships between parents and kids as it brings out strong negative emotions in children, including anger, shame and fear.” And what about the kind of messages smacking sends out to the child? Isn’t it saying that using force is an acceptable way to express feelings and solve problems?

“Yes,” says Therese. “When parents use aggressive behaviour they are teaching their children how to handle conflict and frustration, which can make aggressive behaviour acceptable. Such children are likely to get into trouble at school.” For me, one of the main negatives resulting from smacking is the fear that a child has of the parent. This can destroy the child’s most important relationship, which should be loving and trusting.

Worryingly, it is not only this bond that can suffer. Kids who experience smacking can be mentally scarred for life. A study published in July by the American Academy of Pediatrics states that children who are spanked have an increased risk of mental problems in adulthood, including mood, anxiety disorders and drug abuse. The study claimed that up to 7 per cent of adult disorders can be traced back to physical punishment in childhood. Astonishingly, the risk of mania was 93 per cent higher and risk of alcohol abuse 59 per cent higher.

“I think parents who smack their children do so because they think it is helping their child, or they just don’t know any alternatives,” says Therese. “I encourage parents to use positive parenting strategies, which are easy and quick to implement.” I agree. When you consider the short-term pain and long-term damage, smacking should not be an option.

What you say

“Just because it’s done by a lot of parents, doesn’t mean hitting your child improves their behaviour. The strongest single predictor of violence is having experienced violence.”
Aquarius fan Sarah Zine

“You smack them when you’re angry, they will smack when angry. Simple as that.”
Aquarius fan Simi Rajesh

“Smacking is degrading to adults... imagine how a child feels when he is smacked. I’m not against punishment but this approach is wrong.”
Aquarius fan Greta Yvonne

“Smacking is bad – it’s better to explain what he/she did wrong.”
Aquarius fan Renita D’Souza

“I gave my two sons, now adults, an occasional slap when little and they’ve grown into balanced, happy individuals. Nothing wrong with it.”
Aquarius fan Moira White 

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