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  • Q&A with Australian Health Practitioners

    Should you hit or smack your child?

    There has been a lot of publicity recently about hitting or smacking your child. I am a new mum and want to know what the arguments for and against are?
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  • 9

    Thanks

    Grant McKell

    Psychologist

    Grant McKell is a counselling psychologist working in Sydney's inner west with over ten years' experience. He founded HeadsUp Psychology in August, 2011. Having worked in ... View Profile

    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!

  • modernmummy

    HealthShare Member

    Hello Grant,

    I absolutely love you response and completely agree with most of the aspects that you have listed and I applaud you for not wanting to debate about the topic as it is quite an easy thing to do online.

    One thing I wanted to mention though when you are referring to smacking and hitting as the same thing, I do not agree with hitting as I see it and have been taught it is a completely different definition to smacking. Hitting is a response that gets performed out of anger, fustrustion or in most cases for children (especially younger children) not being to be able to communicate in words. Smacking is a form of discipline when the occasion calls for it (which yes is rare). I have taught all three of my children the difference but I also majority of the time use positive encouragement with a rewards program but I also have to incorporate a thinking program as well. The thinking program I use for my children is basically when they get to a point of fustration or angry they need to calm down in a quiet space and think what was it that got them to that point then comes follow up from myself or other supervising adult. I have also learnt another positive way of communicating which you might of already heard of since your a psychologist, good, bad, good. To expain on this basically say something positive like you are such a caring child then move onto the bad which is the consquences to their actions then last finish on a positive note. This is how I try and incorporate my communication with kids and other adults (obviously it would be different for adults but based on the same good,bad good.) 

    Thankyou for your insite.


  • 1

    Thanks

    Anonymous

    Thank you so much for this fantastic response. It all makes a lot of sense, especially the part about rewarding good behaviour. So if a child does something wrong like hits another child or kicks you (his parent) in a bad moment, could you put them in a naught corner or do some other action which makes them realise they have done something wrong? My child usually doesnt take me seriously enough when i say ‘no’ or ‘naughty’….?

  • Grant McKell

    Psychologist

    Grant McKell is a counselling psychologist working in Sydney's inner west with over ten years' experience. He founded HeadsUp Psychology in August, 2011. Having worked in ... View Profile

    There does have to be consequences for undesired behaviour and a naughty corner or chair is one of those. If you do have a naughty chair, place an egg timer near the child so they can see when “naughty time” is up. When the time is up, have a conversation with them about the right thing to do next time.
    Give warnings  (as is practical) for consequences and then ALWAYS implement the consequences after the warning. If you don't do this, the child will learn that sometimes they can get away with things, which is a slippery slope.
    “No” and “naughty” often don't work as well as “If you keep doing that, you will have to sit on the naughty chair”. Stating consequences is more powerful. Remember, you can always state what you want them to do as well and this can be even more powerful.
    Here's an example of why “No's” and “Don'ts” can be ineffective…
    When I went to school, there was a kid in my class who was a bit naughty. One day he was wandering around the room when he should have been at his desk. The teacher yelled at him “Stephen! Stop walking around the room!!” Stephen got down on his hands and knees and started crawling. The teacher said, “Stephen! What are you doing?!”. Stephen replied, “You asked me to stop walking, Miss. I'm just doing what you said”.
    The teacher should have said, “Stephen, go to your desk and do your work and stay there”. Then Stephen would not have had an “out” to keep being naughty.
    Also, in addition to what I said above, keep in mind that rewards don't have to be big. They just might be that the child can only get what they want a certain way. For example, they don't get what they want unless the words “Please” and “Thank you” are used. Or, they don't get attention by interrupting- they must wait until the grown up is finished doing what they are doing and then the opening words should be “Excuse me”. These are rewards as well. They don't have to be huge and momentous.

  • I am a dietitian/nutritionist with extensive research experience into diet/nutrition and children’s behaviour; Mediterranean-style whole food diet; and parental influences on young children’s diets. In ... View Profile

    This has been covered beautifully by Grant! Fantastic response, well covered. As he has said, punishment is not an effective means of encouraging good behaviour and teaching children inappropriate behaviour. It is important to address the behaviour, not the child her/himself, by helping them learn consequences and conveying that they are okay, the behaviour is not. Hitting personalises it. Hitting is also a violation of their personal space and therefore does not teach children healthy boundaries nor does it help them learn effective conflict resolution, i.e. resolving conflicts without using physical violence.

  • I am a dietitian/nutritionist with extensive research experience into diet/nutrition and children’s behaviour; Mediterranean-style whole food diet; and parental influences on young children’s diets. In ... View Profile

    Here is some interesting new research linking smacking with greater likelihood of mental health problems: http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/lifestyle/a/-/health/14107510/spanking-boosts-mental-illness-odds-study/?zbrandid=2039&zidType=CH&zid=3061920&zsubscriberId=501562563&zbdom=http://aracy.informz.net

  • Maria Nguyen

    HealthShare Member

    I agree with responses above. I am guilty of spanking my 2 year old sometimes. I was on a family trip last week and my little one was just misbehaving hard and refused to listen to me. I spanked few times to prevent hurting himself. But usually I just put my son for timeout in his crib. He surely hates it and stop acting up. 

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  • Dianne Zebic

    Counsellor, Psychotherapist

    Dianne Zebic has retired as of 31/01/2015 View Profile

    I think Grant's response is great, and I agree as parents we should try to use ‘Positive Reinforcement’, which is to give children praise and rewards for good behaviour etc….
    Otherwise by smacking your child will be in breach with the current ‘Child Protection Laws’, and yes as Grant stated in can become a legal issue.

    If you smack your child you are really teaching them to become violent and aggressive when you as a parent are unhappy with their bad behaviour.

    Remember they will copy you, and they will parent their children when they are parent's in the same violent way. You are also teaching your child to resort to violence, when things don't go the way how they expected, as you are their main primary role model. I agree with Grant's response this all can lead to psychological issues for the child, and many children over time can develop anxiety and depression and have extreme anger issues, because these negative behaviours were reinforced by the child's parents. Children should live free from violence and fear, and parents need to seek help if they feel they are not coping when parenting their children.

    Effective parenting involves loving, caring, nurturing and non-violent relationships between parents and their children. Good communication as assertiveness, and making it clear with children what you expect from them is setting down some boundaries and rules. If they break these rule then their needs to be non-violent consequences like (depending on the childs age) eg sending them to time out in their room.

    I offer ‘Children’s Behaviour Modification Programs' for kids under 12 years of age, which can help to modify your child's behaviour, and how to show parents how to be more in control in challenging situations they might find themselves in. One thing to remember is that both parents need to have one form of the same discipline in their home, as often kids will misbehave if they know that they can push the wrong buttons.

    It is best to seek help from a Professional Counsellor or Psychologist  if one is feeling that they are finding it difficult to parent their children, however violence should be avoided at all times.

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