Category: For parents

Is smacking your child ever OK?

Published : Mar 06, 2024
by Rec Parenting Team

The topic of whether it is OK or not to smack children is highly controversial. Some people think that it is totally unacceptable, whereas others see it as a perfectly acceptable discipline technique. So, today I want to look at the data on this topic with the aim of opening up a conversation on this highly divisive subject. Rest assured that I am not trying to shame anyone. Stick with me! 

Before we move on, let’s clarify what we mean by ‘smacking’: Hitting a child with an open hand on the buttocks, legs or arms with the intention of modifying their behaviour.

First things first: How many parents actually smack their children? 

As usual, most of the data available comes from the US.  Eighty per cent of parents in the US report smacking their children, although this number is in decline. Nearly 1/3 of parents in the US who report spanking their child, do so every week. Around the world it is estimated that 63% of children aged 2-4 (this is 250 million children) experience corporal punishment on a regular basis. 

When asked about attitudes towards smacking a You Gov poll conducted in the UK in 2022 showed that of 3,000 adults asked, 68% said that physically disciplining a child is not acceptable and 64% backed that England should illegalize it.  As you can tell, attitudes are still pretty divided. 

Why do parents smack their children? 

Many parents still think of smacking as a useful parenting tool, maybe that is how they were raised, and they don’t know any other way to discipline their children. Other parents use the argument of I was hit as a child and I’m fine!” (sounds familiar?).   Child therapist Justin Coulson wrote a great piece in the New York Times where he outlined the errors of this argument. To me the most compelling is that when we use this argument, we are supporting it on our experience alone and ignoring everyone else’s experience. It is similar to saying “I got totally wasted last night, walked half-naked around the city, and I am fine!” Do we think it is safe or wise to get wasted and walk around half-naked? Would you recommend it to others? Just because I was not negatively affected (as far as I can tell), it doesn’t mean that it will be fine for everyone else.  Also, how do we determine being “fine”? We are in a relationship? We have a job? Just because we cannot recognize the harm in something does not mean harm is not present. 

Andre Hunter via Unsplash

OK, so what does the research say? How bad is it really to smack a child?

There are over five decades of research on this topic with over 160,000 children. The bottom line is this: there is not ONE SINGLE study that has found that smacking children is good for them. Most studies find that smacking is negative for children and a few studies found no negative consequences for children. So, at worst smacking has negative effects and at best it has no effects but what is clear is that it does not have any positive effects. 

The negative effects found on children who are smacked are quite a few:  they are more likely to be aggressive, develop behaviour problems (e.g., bullying), show mental health problems (e.g., depression), get on worse with their parents, are more rebellious, and have a higher risk of being physically injured and of being abused. 

Yes, but… Do all researchers agree with the summary you have just given? 

Most researchers in this field agree with what I have just explained, but a very small minority are not that convinced. Why? The truth is that examining smacking is not that easy. The best way to examine the effects of any parenting behaviour on children’s development is to do experimental studies. How would this look in the case of smacking? We would take two groups of parents and children: over a period of time, one group will smack their children and the other one will not. We would then measure children’s outcomes. As you have guessed, this kind of experimental research is totally unethical and it’s never going to happen (thankfully). Therefore, we need to rely on correlational and intervention studies that use observations and parents’ and children’s reports. 

Critics also say that smacking has been analysed together with more extreme types of physical punishment (e.g., kicking or hitting) and that it is very different to smack a child than to kick them or seriously hurt them. It is true that early researchers did analyse together many different forms of physical punishment but more recent research has analysed smacking on its own, and the findings still stand: Smacking is bad for children although not as bad as other more severe types of physical punishment.

This type of research is not perfect, but it is the best we have. And when decades of research with a sizable number of parents and children consistently show that it is bad to smack children, we can say pretty confidently that we should not smack children. 

I buy your argument but sometimes it seems that smacking is the only way my children will listen. If I don’t smack, how do I discipline my children?

The aim of discipline is to make our children understand why what they did was bad. Smacking our child does not achieve this, instead we are scaring our children. When we smack our children, they may stop doing what they are doing but not because they understand that what they are doing is wrong but because they are afraid of us, and they want us to stop. 

Rather than smacking your children, try explaining why their behaviour was wrong. And be consistent, try to explain it every time they behave that way. After many repetitions, they will get the message. Punish your children but try using “connected consequences”. What does this mean? If the rule in your house is that your child has to place the dirty clothes in the hamper but instead they leave them on the bathroom floor, rather than telling them that they cannot play video games for a month, use a connected consequence. Tell them that clothes that are not in the hamper, will not be washed and therefore they won’t have clothes to play sports or go out with their friends. By doing this, they are getting a negative consequence for their actions and at the same time you are directly addressing the issue. 

Finally, remember that when we smack a child it is usually because we have lost our patience. So, if we want to use better discipline techniques, we need to work on ourselves. Learn what your triggers are and the techniques we can use to stop us from losing our patience. Remember that feeling anger towards our children is not a problem, what may be a problem is what we do with this anger. If you feel that you lose your temper more often that you would like, do get in touch with your REC Parenting therapist, this is definitely something they can help you with. Does this mean that we will always get it right? No, we are human, and we will lose it sometimes, the important thing is that we get it right more often than not. 

We hope that you have this information useful. Do get in touch at hello@recparenting.com if you have any questions or comments. 

Much love, 

Ana and the REC Parenting Team

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Comments
Cristoj
2024-04-09 18:20:19
Great article!!!

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