A growing body of evidence is detailing the harmful effects of physical punishment, but what is the alternative?
Grown ups of a certain vintage are sometimes proud of saying things like: “My dad always gave me a clip round the ear when I was naughty and it never did me any harm!”
Unfortunately, it probably did do them some harm, even if that didn’t include physical injury. The evidence is now pretty conclusive on the effects of regular corporal punishment on children: it causes long term emotional and developmental problems.
There are those who say that parents today are too soft, that hitting is an effective punishment and one that can be given with love, and that by not striking a badly behaving child we are creating a generation of entitled snowflakes that will expect life to be handed them on a plate.
It’s simply not true. Hitting harms children. Here are the facts.
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The law on smacking
Smacking is not illegal in England, if it is light and can be described as “reasonable punishment.”
The term “reasonable punishment” is open to considerable interpretation, of course. The charity Child Law says that, “Whether a ‘smack’ amounts to reasonable punishment will depend on the circumstances of each case, taking into consideration factors like the age of the child and the nature of the smack.”
Any smack that causes wounding, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or child cruelty is illegal.
England is becoming slowly isolated in this regard. Many European countries have abolished parents’ right to use any form of physical punishment, and 53 countries around the world outlaw smacking altogether. The Scottish parliament introduced a bill to outlaw smacking last year. In Wales, a public consultation on banning smacking was conducted in 2018.
In England, light smacking remains legal, but many experts think it shouldn’t be.
The case against smacking
That’s because the evidence that smacking can be harmful to children is mounting all the time. One American study asked over 3,000 American adults about being smacked as children. It came to this conclusion:
“A childhood history of spanking was associated with increased likelihood of suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking, and street drug use in adulthood.”
Another American study concluded that smacking could be seriously counter-productive. Dr Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas, who led the study, found that the use of smacking on children was “making them more aggressive and more antisocial”.
“What smacking teaches them is that when the parent is around, they should behave, otherwise they will be hit,” she said. “The child does not learn how to manage themselves when the parent is not around.”
Writing in Psychology Today, Darcia Narvaez, a professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame, concludes that spanking is bad for all children, regardless of circumstance. It is also likely to sour the relationship between parent and child.
“(Spanking) undermines trust. Children trust their parents just a little less. They are more likely to step back from the relationship and build a self-protective shield around themselves in terms of relationships generally.”
Children trust their parents just a little less.
Is spanking really that bad?
In the interests of balance, it’s worth noting that there are also studies that show spanking has little long-term effect, though not nearly so many. One 1997 study concluded that, for most children, “claims that spanking teaches aggression seem unfounded.”
Another small piece of research looked at the issue from the other end of the funnel. It found that 70% of the parents of “outstanding” (self-motivated, strong character, considerate of others, and high morality) students employed some physical punishment.
It’s also worth noting that not all spanks are the same. Corporal punishment administered by a loving parent in a controlled, non-aggressive way, and used as a last resort, is a lot different from an angry parent slapping a child for the smallest breach of trivial rules.
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Spanking: the alternatives
So loving, involved parents who have administered the occasional light smack as a last resort probably have nothing to worry about.
Nevertheless, the weight of evidence is against physical punishment, pointing to its ineffectiveness as a method of discipline and the potential for long term harm. Specifically, research suggests children who have been spanked are likely to be more aggressive in future. Regular spanking may also undermine the relationship between parent and child.
Still, in the immediate term physical punishment clearly can work: the misbehaving child stops misbehaving, at least for now. If physical punishment is not an option in those circumstances, what can dads do instead?
- Time out. Remove your child from the situation and the source of misbehaviour, at first for a short period and then, if the defiance continues, for longer periods.
- Employ logical consequences. In other words, make the consequences relevant to the misdemeanour. For example, if your child is poking another child with a toy digger, the digger goes away.
- Loss of privileges. Logical consequences works best for younger kids. Older kids can grasp that a more abstract consequence – no screen time, say – can be linked to earlier bad behaviour.
- Just say no. Say it in a clear, stern voice, making eye contact. Later, have a clear, short conversation about what is not acceptable and what the consequences will be.
- Show don’t tell. For toddlers and very young children, explanations may be too complex. Show them what you want them to do instead.
- Be positive. Praise good behaviour. Specifically, always praise behaviour that is the opposite of the bad behaviour you want to stop.