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Sunday, January 9, 2011

Smacking: let's stop pretending!

If you read current child-rearing literature and listen to the experts, you'll know that good parents don't smack their kids. Yet if you talk for long enough to almost any parent, you'll know that theory and practice are WORLDS apart on this issue. Nearly every parent has lost their cool at some stage and smacked their child. I did; my mother did. You probably have too.  Plenty of mums and dads still use it as a regular disciplinary device- they're just not talking about it.

To have a rational public discussion about smacking which considers any positives as well as the negatives is considered taboo- smacking is politically incorrect, and that's that. This has created a quiet subculture which really, really worries me. If we're still doing it, we need to bring it out in the open. So let's have that discussion right now; it's about time.

What do I think of smacking, given that I've dealt with all ages and stages of atrocious behaviour?

First- the positives. I can think of a few examples from my experience where, on reflection, an immediate smack was probably not only understandable, but educational (and I bet you can think of some examples too!)- a spur-of-the-moment reaction from you which seemed to have the desired effect, without actually seeming to harm the child beyond that moment's discomfort.

Here's one which, as the recipient, I still remember and which I don't feel harmed me one bit. My mother was generally not a smacker, even though there was no taboo against it when I was little. I would have been maybe four when, bored by my mother's extended conversation with a neighbour, I pulled away from her hand and ran across the road to go home by myself (naturally, without looking). I can still recall the whack I got across the backside, accompanied by a completely terrified 'NEVER run across the road!!!'

If a car had hit me, the pain and shock for me would have been much worse, of course. So it was probably a fitting consequence, and all the more effective for its rarity. It certainly broke through my complacency and made me remember the lesson, probably better than any little lecture later on.

So in that case, smacking worked. I didn't do it again. But there's no doubt that my poor mother had lost control, and I bet she beat herself up about it later- because she was the usually gentlest of women. Being the gentlest of women, she didn't hit me very hard, so I was more surprised than hurt.

A second example of a spur-of-the-moment smack being warranted was when a childless friend of mine was caring for her new partner's 5-year-old. Unaware of the capacities (or lack thereof) of this preschooler, she decided to clear a blocked outside drain with a poisonous and caustic substance (yes, I know- silly idea- but she lacked experience with children). She warned the boy to keep away because it would burn him (and yes, he had plenty to occupy him elsewhere), but as she started to pour, Mr Curiosity ran up and went to put his hand under the stream of chemical.

In this instance, smacking his hand away hard enough to make him cry probably saved him from serious burns, and so I'll give her a pass mark too- as long as she never tries to use dangerous chemicals in the presence of a child again!

We could also argue that in the real world out there, if children grow up without respect for others and with an incautious tongue, it's extremely likely that eventually someone else will hit them- and possibly very hard. Perhaps smacking a child for outrageous rudeness is also warranted on these grounds, if accompanied by a message to that effect- that if he goes around saying things like that, it's extremely likely that someone will flatten him one day (and with much more force than any parent would). I'll plead guilty to this one myself; I smacked my son a couple of times for extreme disrespect when he was a pre-teen. Yes, I lost my rag with him and I wasn't too proud of it. But I also remember talking it over with him afterwards- I think he 'got it'. He's certainly more careful about pressing my buttons these days, and he's still speaking to me. Again, it certainly wasn't something I did every day- and severe anger seems to make my limbs turn to jelly, so I never hit him hard.

But in general, smacking does say more about a parent's lack of control of their emotions than it does about their wish to teach a child to understand cause and effect, or the consequences of bad behaviour. It's an explosion of parental frustration, impatience, rage- and often, wounded feelings.

And the trouble with smacking children as a way of discouraging bad behaviour is that if you do it often, it loses its potency- so you have to hit harder and harder to get a reaction... whereas if you only do it occasionally, it's probably saved for those occasions when you've lost your temper completely and may well hit harder than you meant to.

So the bottom line, and the reason that smacking has become a taboo in the first place, is that YOU MUST NOT INJURE YOUR CHILD while teaching them consequence- smacking became a taboo because too many people have injured or killed their own kids in the name of discipline. It's all very well to talk about those situations where a smack is understandable, and perhaps even logical- but when your teenager calls you an obscenity, or your preschooler does something extraordinarily dangerous despite your warnings, it's extremely likely that you're very angry indeed. Very angry people are generally not in an ideal frame of mind to monitor how hard they hit, or even where they hit.

So- smacking is probably a bad idea. But it happens, because we're only human. If you know you do lose control with your child sometimes and smack them, or if your partner does so, please pay close attention to the following!

'Smacking' means with an open hand. If you make a fist to punish a child (and that includes adolescents), YOU are the one with a problem and you need to cool your heels in a prison cell until you learn to pick on someone your own size.

It is ABSOLUTELY POINTLESS to smack a baby. Babies are NOT intentionally naughty. They are explorers, and if they're touching something they shouldn't, it's your fault for leaving it where they could reach it. They have no capacity for understanding why their parent is hurting them- so don't expect it to change their behaviour; it will only alter their level of trust and confidence in you, and not in a good way.

There is NO situation where it's okay to shake a child. You will cause brain damage. Little children are fragile. Even older children and adults can be damaged this way; many head injuries from car crashes are caused by the brain bouncing off the skull, and a savage shaking produces the same effect.

Smacking other people's kids is a really bad idea. I don't care what they did. Even my childless friend, who smacked a hand to save her boyfriend's child from serious burns, ended up having a major domestic over it which nearly ended the relationship. Take a deep breath, put Junior in time out and make time to talk to the parent later about it. You DON'T have the right. Butt out. If you can't control yourself, don't look after other people's children.

Smacking a child above the shoulders is incredibly dangerous. I repeat, it's easier than you think to kill or brain-injure a child when you're angry. If you find yourself doing this, you need to own up to your doctor or therapist and seek their help immediately for your anger issues.

Smacking a child hard enough to knock them over is doubly dangerous; you just PROVED you're out of control, and you don't know where or how they'll fall- they may hurt themselves much worse than you could ever imagine. The same applies to a smacking that's hard enough to leave a bruise.  If you see someone else doing this, they need to be reported for child abuse.  If you did it yourself, GET HELP.

Smacking a child with any object at all (cane, belt, hairbrush, ping pong bat, ANYTHING) is vicious as well as illegal. It says everything about your own nastiness and sadism and nothing at all about upholding standards of behaviour, because the only reason for hitting a child with an object is to cause severe pain. If you've ever done this YOU NEED HELP. If you see someone else doing it, rescue that child NOW.

You are your child's role model, whether you intend to be or not. Smacking teaches your child that a good way to deal with problems is by hitting someone. Think hard about whether you want them to learn that lesson. If you smack them for every misdemeanour, it's only a matter of time before they use that lesson to punish someone smaller than them who crosses them in some way- because you just taught them that it's okay to do that. 

What are you going to do when the headmaster rings you to say your son, aged (say) 9, just thumped a kid half his size? Look like a deranged idiot to the headmaster by saying that's okay, or look like a hypocrite in your own kid's eyes by saying that's not okay? He's old enough to notice, you know.

If you choose hypocrisy, respect goes out the window head first. Adolescents are particularly quick to pick it up, and they judge you very harshly for it.

What do you do if you have lost the plot and smacked your child, and you regret it?

One-off smacking incidents don't automatically make you a bad parent. (Habitual smacking? Yes, that probably does indicate that you need to rethink your discipline strategies before you get the Bad Parent award.)

But if it's a one-off, you'll probably feel bad after you cool down... guilt is an incredibly energy-sapping emotion, so you need to do something about what's happened before it poisons the atmosphere.

Be honest, and deal with the situation straight away. Don't apologise for being angry about the bad behaviour- that was fair enough!- but do apologise for losing control. Wait till you're calmer, but don't wait so long that your child has had time to brood about it and you've lost your nerve. You could try something like this, for an adolescent:

'Josh?' (Use their name to make sure they're listening- they may not want to look at you if they're upset, so don't insist.) 'I shouldn't have hit you, and I'm sorry. Are you listening? I'm really sorry I hit you. I was very angry, but I know hitting you wasn't the right answer.

'Next time you want money you really need to talk to me about it, because I feel really abused by you right now and that's why I lashed out at you. It's not okay to take money out of my purse; that's stealing, even if I'm your mum. You're probably angry with me too right now, so maybe we can talk about it when we both cool down a bit. But I just wanted you to know that I'm sorry for hitting you.' (And go away! An adolescent will need to think this through!)

For a small child, you still need to say sorry for the smack, but not for being angry. Something like this:

'Josh? Look at me please. I'm sorry I smacked you. I was really scared when you jumped off the roof, and then I got really angry because you didn't stop when I told you to. Please don't scare me so much. I don't like it when I get that angry and scared, and I didn't like smacking you, it made me feel bad inside; so please listen when I tell you to stop. I love you and I don't want you to break all your bones, because that would hurt you so much!'

Saying sorry doesn't mean you've lost your authority. It actually teaches a younger child that everyone makes mistakes, and that sorry is a real, useful concept, not just a sound that adults expect them to make when THEY do the wrong thing; better still, YOU using the word 'sorry' meaningfully makes your adolescent respect you more. And it also takes you out of that horrible no-win guilt-blame loop.

Never apologise for your genuine emotions, standards and beliefs, but don't be afraid to apologise to your child when you stuff up; it can be the making of a mature relationship between you and your child.

1 comment:

  1. Posts such as this annoy me as it perpetuates the prevailing attitude that controlled calm discipline involving a smack is the equivalent of loss of control hitting. If you smacked your kids once or twice out of anger or fear; you've seen the danger and darkness that this way lies, and thus assume every parent who smacks has similarly lost control. Loss of control is not justifiable in any form of discipline, you are not describing corporal discipline, simply abuse. Smacking, when done as calm controlled discipline; warning - explanation - smack - hugs; is arguably no more hurtful to the child, and more effective. We are rightly cautious about any form of physical harm being inflicted on a child, but lets not confuse calm discipline with acting out of anger or frustration.


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