In my last article I discussed a range of problems associated with smacking our kids. The article was designed to demonstrate that there is a lot of evidence that indicates that smacking kids creates harmful outcomes beyond the immediate pain they experience. I only highlighted a handful of issues associated with (or caused by) smacking, but hopefully it was enough to prompt some thinking about how we try to have an impact on our kids’ behaviour.
Now it’s time to focus on solutions – things you might be better off doing instead of smacking the kids.
The purpose of discipline
The whole reason most parents smack their kids is because they are trying to teach them that certain behaviour is not considered acceptable. While teaching good ways to act is the purpose of discipline, smacking is an ineffective tool for achieving this goal.
Think about the best teachers you’ve had in your life. How did they effectively teach you? Chances are that it wasn’t through acts of aggression or through hurting you. Instead, I suspect that they did the following things:
Stand on higher ground
The best way to teach someone is by example. We teach our kids to cook, set up an email account, tidy a room, or pump up a bicycle tyre by passing on our knowledge and habits from a position of experience. Soft skills are taught through example: we teach gratitude by being grateful, compassion by being compassionate, and service by serving. In short, if we wish to teach our kids anything, our example is primary. Be an example of what you teach.
There’s nothing more ironic than seeing a parent smacking a child for hitting, or screaming at a child to stop yelling and making so much noise. And you may have noticed that calm parents often have calm, quiet children … it’s not just temperament and heritability! The example that we set models appropriate behaviour for our children. When we are impatient, angry, critical, or disrespectful, our children watch and follow. And when we are kind, compassionate, helpful, and loving, our children learn as well.
Great parents make sure they set their children up to be successful by explaining what expectations are. They ensure that instructions are clear, relevant, and understood. When we teach our kids right ways to act, we should spend more time helping them recognise what they are best off doing, rather than emphasising what not to do.
Perhaps one of the things you appreciated about the best teacher in your life was that s/he invited your input. When we teach our children good ways to act, we should look for opportunities to ask questions and invite discussion rather than lecturing.
Our questions can encourage our children to think more deeply about what behaviour is appropriate. Rather than berating them for getting it wrong and demanding they do it this way, we can ask questions like, “What would be a better idea?”, “How could you have said that more nicely?”, or “What might have been a way that you could do that and keep your sister happy at the same time?”.
As we promote conversations with our children, they are more likely to come up with their own reasons and answers for ideal behaviour, and will internalise these ideas at a much deeper level.
A quick point though: it is typically ineffective to try and have a conversation with kids when they are highly strung, emotional, being observed by others, or tired. It’s best to invite discussion when everyone is calm, and can talk about challenging experiences calmly.
Give opportunities for practise and mistakes
In some circumstances it can be useful to help our children learn by giving them a chance to practise their ideas (or practise our instructions). If we are teaching them to share we can tell them it’s time to practise, put them in the room with their sibling, and get them to try it out – perhaps with our guidance (and remembering that if they’re upset it won’t work … must wait until all is calm). The gentle art of practice, combined with guidance from us, can help our kids get really good at behaving the way we are training them to behave.
Show you care
Perhaps the most profound reason that your favourite teacher had such an impact on you was because you felt unconditional support, love and encouragement from them. Great teachers are willing to spend time with us and listen to us. They understand our desires and our motivations. They listen. And they help us understand our shortcomings by patiently working with us on our problems, offering solutions, and guiding us towards ideal outcomes.
If the task is too big they sit with us and gently remind us, direct us, and give us hints. They don’t get mad, and they don’t take over. Instead, they care, and they show it in everything they say and do.
The truth about parenting is that most of us are muddling through. We’re doing the best we can – or at least we’re doing the best we know how to, based on the things our parents have taught us and the things we have read or observed. When it comes to discipline there really are dozens of ways that we can teach our kids – some more effective, and some less effective.
While we emphasise working with our kids rather than doing to our kids, we’re likely to stay away from smacking, and move towards better solutions that build our children and create stronger connections.