Spare The Rod And Spoil The Child?

'You must beat it out of them' 'You have to break the spirit' 'A short sharp smack is what you need - shock them' 'It has to hurt to be a deterrent otherwise what's the point?' 'If you love your children you will smack them - it's the only way to show them who's boss'

Have you heard any of these or do you agree with any of these? These are all direct pieces of advice I have been given over the last five years. Smacking is one of those controversial areas that evokes all sorts of emotional and moral responses, but rarely (as far as I can work out) is it based on logic.

When I am walking round Sainsburys there are generally three types of parenting that goes on:

The empty threats parent:

This is by far the most common; every second parent makes empty threats to their child in exasperation and embarrassment. 4 year old Alfie is whining for sweets and starts to play up when his mum says no. "Alfie if you don't stop that whining you'll get a smacked bottom' Alfie doesn't even pause to give mum the satisfaction of being listened to, instead starts to cry. "Alfie if you don't stop that crying I'll give you something to cry about" The crying is swapped for whining again and he starts to try and open the packet of sugared crap (coco pops). By this time mum has started to unload her shopping onto the conveyor belt. As alfie succeeds in opening the packet sending a shower of coco pops all over the floor, mum has had enough and grabs a packet of smarties and shoves them in his face "here, this'll shut you up - I suppose you think you've won". erm yes he has just won - and since when was parenting about being in competition with your child?

Alfie has probably never had a smack. He hears the phrase every day but he has learned that a 'smack bottom' means he will get whatever he wants - usually sweets.

The fear of God parents:

For me this is worse - at least Alfie got some sweets at the end of it. Sam has fear of God parents. He walks round Sainsburys about 3 paces behind his mum who snaps at him occasionally to hurry up. He makes an attempt to talk to her, but she is too busy chatting on her phone and ignores him. She signals to him to get the grapes for her but he can't quite reach and knocks a bunch onto the floor. " For goodness sake Sam, can't you do anything right? You're useless. I only asked you to get the grapes and you throw them on the floor". Sam starts crying and tries to reach up for a cuddle, but mum who is still trying to chat on the phone has had enough of the inconvenience of her child and snaps "That's it, I've had enough, you're doing my head in" as she bends down and smacks his bottom.

Sam has a very low opinion of himself. He gets smacked with no real reason and no warning and he craves one thing - his mum's affection.

The Mary Poppins parent (practically perfect in every way):

This is the mum that makes you look in envy as you walk past. She has her children engaged in the shopping trip with illustrated shopping lists and pens. Maisie and Charlie take turns to find an item from the list and they are allowed to choose the item by themselves. Mum doesn't attempt to change the slightly imperfect bananas - instead she comments on what a good choice Maisie made. Charlie is given the job of asking the meat counter man for 3 slices of boiled ham. When Maisie starts to whine for some doughnuts, mum ignores the request and distracts with the next item on the list and reminds them that after the shopping is done they can go to the park for a quick play before dinner. The shopping trip is completed with a happy mum and two happy children.

Obviously I aspire to be a Mary Poppins mum - but nobody (no, not even me) is practically perfect in every way; mums are hormonal and emotional creatures and kids are unpredictable. If I were a smacker then an emotional, hormonal day could lead to smacking out of anger - and that is never ok.

My point is this - the 'empty threats' parents and the 'fear of God' parents both used smacking or/and the threat of smacking in ineffective and, to be prefectly honest, damaging ways.

I imagine there will be many parents reading this who use smacking and find it to be an effective form of discipline - and if your children are happy, well-behaved and well-adjusted then that's fantastic and I'm not in any way saying that smacking is categorically wrong. But I wonder .. at what cost has that good behaviour come? here are some basic questions that you should ask yourself before choosing smacking as a viable discipline option:

  • Could smacking damage my child's self esteem?
  • Could smacking damage the bond I have with my child?
  • Is smacking really about discipline/guiding my child or is it about punishment?
  • When do I start smacking? What age is old enough? When do I stop?
  • How will I deal with it when my child hits me when he is unhappy with my behaviour?
  • Is there an effective alternative?
  • Is my decision to smack influenced by the opinions of others?

We started smacking Ben when he was around two. I have always felt uncomfortable with it - but I'm a good church-going, bible-believing kinda girl so smacking is just the thing to do (after all we were all smacked and we are all vaguely ok). So I was careful to use smacking in a very controlled, calm way - out of love and all that.

But Ben started to hit. Ben hit both me and daddy; he hit his nursery friends; he hit his brother. Ben hit anyone who upset him or who did something wrong (in his eyes). Ben would resort to hitting as a way of expressing his frustrations. Perhaps this is partly down to his 'condition', but I began to realise that I couldn't expect him to stop hitting others for upsetting him if we continued to smack when he 'upset' us.

The final straw for me was when I was doing the bedtime routine and found myself saying "Ben if you hit me again you'll get a smack!" How completely and utterly ridiculous - it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there is no logic to that at all.

Ben's hitting and inability to express his emotions is, in part, to do with having Asperger's but this was even more reason for us to think very carefully about how we went about disciplining him.

For us, stopping smacking was one of the best decisions we made. We have armed ourselves with a whole load of other tools for effective discipline. But more importantly we have learned the power of praise and positive parenting as a way of encouraging good behaviour. I can't remember the last time I smacked Ben. neither can I remember the last time he hit me and we are all much happier and calmer in a smack-free house.

I am no longer an 'empty threats' mum or a 'fear of God' mum - I strive to be a Mary Poppins mum, but fail frequently because I'm human. I think I am probably somewhere in the middle - I'll call it the 'on the journey' mum.

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