Ok, there are three aspects to this one. One is the legal aspect, one is the human rights aspect and the other is the psychological aspect.
The legal aspect varies from state to state- you should check with your state child protection agency to find out what the rules are in your jurisdiction.
The human rights aspect is the area in which most people debate with each other about the rights and wrongs of hitting a child. And the debate is about the parents' right to discipline as they see fit versus the child's right to be physically and psychologically safe. I won't enter into this debate.
In terms of the psychological issues, evidence would suggest that hitting and smacking is an ineffective way of dealing with poor behaviour and can have developmental impacts upon socialisation and behaviour.
Smacking and hitting is a punishment. Punishment has been shown to be a very imprecise tool in shaping the behaviour we want to see. This is because punishment is an unpleasant consequence for behaviour that teaches us to avoid further punishment in the future. For example, if we touch something hot and it burns, we don't touch that thing again in the future. Or if we eat red berries that make us sick, we learn to avoid red berries.
However, think about if we hit our little brother and he tells on us. Mum comes in, wooden spoon in hand. She asks “Did you hit him?”. We learn that if we tell the truth, we will get hit with the spoon. It is not predictable that we will not hit our little brother in the future. Maybe, we'll learn to do it in such a way that the bearer of wooden spoons won't find out about it.
And that's the problem with punishment- it teaches us to avoid punishment. And this may not mean that we behave the way our parents would want! It can actually inadvertently shape and encourage behaviours such as lying, sneaking and other avoidant behaviours.
The other problem with punishment is that it models behaviour. If you smack your child, you may be sending out signals about how to manage conflict. If a parent who has smacked their child a few times starts to see behaviour in their child's play, such as pretending to be a parent and smacking a dolly, that should send a pretty clear signal that the child sees hitting behaviour as “normal” and that smacking should go off the punishment menu for a while. Smacking and hitting can invoke fear and anxiety in children and adults often forget how big and scary they are to littler people.
My main problem with smacking children is that it is ineffective as a punishment. I'm no bleeding heart about this. I was smacked as a child and would definitely subscribe to the “It didn't do me any harm” doctrine. My parents did it sparingly and infrequently. However, I would hasten to add that I don't think that smacking actually stopped me from riding my bike down at our local creek (for which I was usually smacked)- I just tried to get away with it and became sneakier about it! And when I think about the good behaviours that I did adopt, none of these were encouraged or shaped in any way by smacking. There was something much more powerful at play.
And that was praise, acknowledgement and reward. These are far more powerful tools to shape the behaviour we want to see than punishment is. If punishment worked, I'd be all for it. But reward works better.
Think about this: How do you train a dog to sit? We know when we get a new puppy that it has no concept of what sitting is about. So, we show it how to sit. We say “Sit” give a hand signal, push it's bottom to the floor and simultaneously give it a yummy treat. Soon the dog learns to sit on signal or command. And humans are smarter than dogs….
So here's some tips to get behaviour you WANT to see.
1). Always think about what you want your child to do rather than what you don't want.
2). Make sure your child understands what it is they should be doing and teach them if need be.
3). Reward the behaviour when it happens- praise, hugs, cuddles, “I'm so proud”-s and so on.
It is far more powerful and effective and psychological research has shown this time and time again to be the case.
If your child is doing something wrong, make sure they know that you are disappointed and upset, but at the same time put in a statement that says “But if you were doing such and such instead, that would make mummy/daddy much happier with you. Go and try that now, show me how you do that.” (Or similar).
Should you hit and smack your child? Rarely, if at all. The emphasis should be on rewarding and shaping desired behaviour simply because it works better.
I'm happy to enter into further discussion on this- please feel free to reply!
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