Does Smacking Really Work?

15 September 2022
Posted by: Chelsea

Smacking: Probably since the beginning of time, some parents have chosen to smack misbehaving children.

However, for at least a century or more, experts have been asking the question “does smacking really work?”. Their answers are almost universally “no”.

What is smacking?

People may have different views on this.

Some might suggest a light tap on the wrist or bottom of a child, undertaken reluctantly, gently and certainly not in anger, was not ‘smacking’. Those same people may though see a child being hit hard and in anger by a parent as being both ‘smacking’ and unacceptable.

The only safe way to define this is to consider any action that involves striking your child as an admonition however gently, is by definition ‘smacking’. It’s worth keeping in mind that in many countries where it has been banned by law, this is the type of definition adopted.

Parental objectives

Those parents that smack their children may be driven by different things:

  • a calm decision to physically punish their child, not in anger, as a way of showing their disapproval and the naughtiness of the act itself:
  • to disincentivise a repeat of such behaviour by the child;
  • to express their own negative emotions and anger arising from the child’s actions.

In fact, smacking often arises from a complex interaction of these forces.

The child’s perspective

Studies show that children that have been smacked are typically:

  • shocked;
  • emotionally damaged, concluding that their parent doesn’t like them and/or wants to hurt them;
  • encouraged to follow their parent’s example by taking on board that physical violence (in their terms) is acceptable as a means to an end.

What is critically important is that the studies suggest that the child does not primarily associate the smacking with their own actions. As such, it is not in any way a positive learning experience for them. For example, seeing a parent angry and smacking them for perhaps getting angry themselves and hitting another child, is a total contradiction.

Replacing smacking

If children, much under the age of about, 3 are misbehaving then the best approach is simply distracting them from their negative behaviours. Try cuddling and positive re-enforcement to explain why their behaviour is wrong and most importantly, what they should be doing.

For children over 3, the typically recommended approach is called, “consequences”. That usually involves making it clear that if they continue to misbehave, there will be a consequence they won’t like. Examples might include having the TV switched off, the temporary removal of a toy or time on the ‘naughty step’.

This associates in their mind the concept of bad behaviour with negative consequences for them. Children under 3 may struggle to understand this concept which is why it isn’t recommended for that age group.

Rare cases

It is very rare but for some children, it is seemingly a major challenge to differentiate between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours.

If you’re applying all best practices and they are apparently not working:

  • do not allow yourself to become angry and drift towards thinking of smacking (if you are struggling to control your own anger, you should seek anger management counselling);
  • don’t hesitate to speak to your doctor about help that might be available through children’s counselling and behaviour therapy sessions. They can be exceptionally effective in helping parents to manage children with behavioural challenges.

Do remember though that in the vast majority of cases, your child will respond well to distraction and/or the consequences approaches.

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