In my parenting classes and coaching sessions I am regularly confronted with people who become incredulous when I suggest that we need to stop hitting our kids if we want to discipline them effectively. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised – research tells us that upwards of 70% of Aussie parents think that smacking kids is ok.
I generally ask parents why they would want to hit their kids. Most parents correct me, and tell me that they don’t want to hit their kids. But immediately and invariably, they add: “But it’s how you discipline them.”
Let’s get the definitions clear
In my book, What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family, I suggest that discipline is ‘teaching our children good ways to act’.
This is in direct contrast with physical discipline, which is “an act carried out with the intention of causing physical pain or injury to another person”1.
So while the purpose of discipline is to teach, the purpose of physical discipline is to hurt someone. By hurting that person, we anticipate that he or she will “be taught a lesson” – or disciplined.
While many parents may claim that a smack is just a ‘gentle tap’ to nudge their kids in the right direction, research by Australian academics2 tells us that the children do not perceive the taps as “gentle”. Instead they consistently define it as a “hard hit” or a “very hard hit.” This may be because it hurts. Or because neurological evidence emphasises that physical pain creates brain activity in the same brain regions as emotional pain. So the smack not only hurts physically, but it really does hurt emotionally.
Besides, if it were really gentle, it would lose its effectiveness. After all, the purpose of a physical punishment is to hurt!
Why do we hit our kids?
There are loads of reasons the kids cop it physically. I often hear the following kneejerk responses:
"Because they deserve it."
"To teach them a lesson - it's the only way to get through to them sometimes."
"I give them a few warnings, but if they won't listen, that's the consequences."
"It keeps them in line. They'd go crazy if they weren't scared of me."
Some more thoughtful parents sometimes acknowledge that they hit their kids out of frustration, due to stress, or exhaustion. In other words, it’s not so much because of the kids, but because they – as parents – struggle to cope sometimes.
There are less obvious reasons for smacking. Research shows that parents who are fighting with one another (or using controlling techniques or being critical or insulting one another) have children who are at twice the risk of being hit.
Does smacking kids actually work?
The response to this question is, “Work to do what?”
Let’s be frank. If you give your kid a whack, it’s pretty certain to change her behaviour. We certainly get a short-term fix. But beyond that, smacking kids also works to do a few other things really well:
This recent study in the journal, Pediatrics, indicated that children who are spanked are at a greater likelihood of developing aggressive behaviours themselves.
And this research article found that smacking kids is positively related to what psychologists refer to as ‘externalising’ behaviour – that is, behaviour related to acting out, being aggressive or oppositional, or even being hyperactive. The same study showed spanking was associated with increased levels of anxiety, depressive characteristics, and withdrawal.
Research has shown that spanking has a negative relationship with cognitive development. Hitting kids can make them dumb… that’s bad for learning!
And smacking our kids affects the security of their attachment relationship with us as parents. Spanking also affects their relationships and behaviours with peers as well (increased risk of bullying).
In sum (and in addition to the research above) smacking kids works to do the following things:
- Stop the behaviour in the short term
- Model and promote the use of violence to solve problems
- Increase stress, anxiety, depression, and withdrawal
- Harm social relationships and relationships/attachment with parents
- Promotes externalising behaviours like aggression, delinquency, and hyperactivity
- Encourage children to become more secretive so they don’t get caught
- Ignore the reasons as to why kids are behaving the way they are
So yes, smacking kids works to do a lot of things… And while it may stop unwanted behaviour in the short-term, it seems to come at a great cost – the cost of relationships, cognitive development, aggression modeling, anxiety, depression, and so much more.
The UGLY truth
I think that the ugly truth is that parents spank for one of two reasons:
- It’s simply the easiest option, requiring limited perspective, consideration, effort, or time
- They honestly don’t know what else to do
If it’s the first option, then some perspective may be helpful. A quick fix now almost assures us that the long-term consequences will require far more of us later. With parenting, what is fast now becomes slow later, and what is slow now becomes fast later.
If it’s the second option, let me assure you, there are FAR better alternatives than smacking your kids. In the second part of this article I’ll describe just a handful of effective teaching strategies that will help us discipline our kids for the long-term, with positive discipline strategies designed to make life easier for you, and happier for your kids.