Should parents smack their children?

Photo: Brooklyn Morgan

Am I against smacking?

Yes. Have I smacked any of my children? Yes, at one time or another.

Few topics are sure to ignite debate among parents than that of physical, or corporal, punishment for children.

Some people are calling for the resignation of Dr Kevin Donnelly, the co-chair of the national curriculum review, on the back of his recent comments in favour of the use of corporal punishment in schools as long as the parents and community are supportive. To be fair, he had been pressed for his opinion on corporal punishment and he qualified his remarks by saying that in schools it is a thing of the past except for one or two cases in the whole country. From what I could tell by hearing his comments he wasn’t calling for it to be restated more generally.

In any case, around 69 per cent of Australians are said to smack their children. Some argue that a smack is a useful part of a larger discipline strategy, particularly for boys, and does no real or lasting harm. But there are persuasive arguments against corporal punishment by parents and a growing call to see it made illegal in this country. See here for a great summary of cases for and against smacking by a number of parenting experts.

My own thinking is that it’s an abuse of power and not in keeping with the Gospel values I wish to practice. I think we’re better off with a holistic view of discipline as teaching our children how to behave properly and cultivating a culture of virtue in our home.

Boundaries should be made very clear very early on. Children should know that they aren’t running the show. Parents should be generally affectionate but willing to enforce consequences for children’s undesirable behaviour. And respect should be maintained for everyone.

This view is not the same as letting kids get away with whatever they want. We run a pretty tight ship in our house while trying to avoid smacking. But the burden of the work is definitely put on the parents, whose responsibility it is to make sure their children are well-educated in every way, including socially. If we want to teach our children that violence is unacceptable except in the case of defence, then smacking them surely undermines that.

Should smacking be banned? One thing that is quite clear is that regular physical punishment doesn’t work. Smack your child every day and he or she will become desensitised and you’ll need to smack harder to get the desired reaction, or do something else that’s physically or psychologically hurtful to get a reaction – that’s a great way to lose your children’s respect and become an abusive parent.

It can also be pointed out that the effects of regular verbal or emotional abuse and neglect are debilitating as well, and can be far worse than the effect of an occasional use of mild physical punishment in an otherwise loving family.

One argument against banning parental smacking which holds water for me is that it will place a burden on already struggling child-protection and legal systems. It will also undermine parents’ confidence. We need better education and supports for parents, not laws criminalising a large proportion of the population for the way they relate to their kids.

What is a smack anyway?

Commonsense should help us discern the difference between a quick whack or two on a child’s clothed bottom or on their hand with a hand, and physically hurting a child by applying too much force, or striking another part of the body such as the head, or with an implement such as a belt or wooden spoon. Things like kicking or biting are definitely out.

But some people unfortunately lack this ability to know the difference or to control their anger, and at the extreme end of the spectrum some children are injured in the name of discipline.

Each Australian state has its own legislation and guidelines regarding parental corporal punishment stating that it is not unlawful but must be reasonable, brief, and not excessive in terms of force. For more detail, see here.

Why are we smacking?

If our aim is just to stop an undesirable behaviour in a child, then smacking works. But we won’t know if the behaviour will stop completely, or only when we are around. It may lead to our child becoming more deceitful.

It would seem very odd to me to hit our older three children, at 10, eight, and six years of age. However I found that around age two or three, when a child is testing their limits and is old enough to cause real trouble but not yet able to be reasoned with or to delay gratification, situations can arise where a simple smack has been a very effective means of quieting him or her so I could do what I needed to (like quickly do up a car booster seatbelt while I’m perched on the side of a busy freeway). For me it’s an emergency or last-resort option.

Do we need more education on positive parenting?

We need to be honest about how hard it is to parent children, and how imperative it is to parent well. I’m not convinced that we need laws banning smacking, but we definitely need more education in our communities about best practice parenting.

The Triple P Positive Parenting Program and newer initiatives such as the Parent Line NSW are great, but there’s room for large and ongoing campaigns promoting positive parenting to keep it front-of-mind for people with children of different ages.

My children are generally cooperative with each other and with us, and we prefer to resolve any transgressions with natural consequences, for example, missing out on TV-watching time because they have to spend that time tidying up the mess they’ve made in their bedrooms.

They are also able to delay gratification so we are able to use motivation, again in terms of natural consequences, for example, if they do their chores quickly on a Saturday morning they might have time to do some baking with me, which they love.

As they are growing older I almost never have to deal with situations where I feel a need to smack one of them. And I am glad about that.

What do you think?

Should parents use physical punishment on their children?Are you appalled that people will smack their kids? Are you appalled that people won’t smack their kids? Are you a regretful occasional smacker, like me? What is your go-to strategy in the heat of the moment when your child is going wild?

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Mary says:

    Hi Marilyn

    I am a proud mum of two beautiful boys and in my upbringing I had a lovely mum but a very violent controlling and alcoholic father. God has healed my emotional wounds but childhood memories can conjure up from time to time such as
    being locked in cupboards verbally and physically being subject to violent outbursts if dad was angry or lost his keys the whole family paid for it. I grieve for my dad because I wonder how awful his own childhood must have been. But Gods word has an answer for everything from memory St Paul’s instructions “do not exasperate your children lest they lose heart and you crush their spirit”. I grew up resentful and fearful of my dad and its not a healthy view for any child. I believe if we walk in love and live the gospel values as you so nicely wrote Marilyn we let go of all anger and bitterness and there is more room for love. Gods word has healed challenged and transformed my thinking and I have relearnt how to improve my love walk in my own life. In a way I’m thankful it happened to me in a sense this burden has become my blessing as I would do anything to protect and nurture my kids and others from any form of abuse. The cycle stops with me but at a price you have to let God change you by renewing your mind in scripture prayer and fasting.Thanks be to God.

    I have been reading & enjoying your column “Pitter Patter”since 07 before I became a mum and enjoy it tremendously!! Thankyou and Gods blessings be upon you and your family!!!


    1. Thank you for sharing that Mary. Your boys are blessed to have you.


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