Questions about the rights and responsibilities of parents are often raised in regard to discipline and smacking children. Many people believe there is nothing wrong with the age-old custom of smacking or giving a ‘whack with a wooden spoon.’ Many claim that parents should be able to discipline their kids how they please, within reason. Supporters of physical punishment maintain that there is a difference between child abuse and smacking and that the laws concerning child abuse are sufficient to protect children. A common theme is that ‘I was smacked as a child and it didn’t do me any harm.’
People generally agree about the need for discipline, and that there is a difference between a smack and child abuse. However, it isn't always clear how those who believe in physical punishment can decide when the line between the two is crossed. More about my suggestion on that below.
It's not surprising that some people still believe parents should have the right to smack their children because smacking wasn't questioned up to fairly recently, and most of us felt the odd whack or two as children. Most parents have probably at least threatened to smack their children. I smacked my kids when they were little, partly because I thought that was what parents were supposed to do, and partly because I didn’t know what else to do. Fortunately, I discovered there are other ways that work better.
There are many definitions of discipline and some of them support the use of physical punishment. This could be because so many people associate the word ‘discipline’ with punishment, and dictionary definitions usually reflect the common usage of a word. The definition of discipline I use in my books, because it best describes the real task for parents, is: Discipline means to teach, assist, and guide children to become self-controlled. For kids to become truly self-controlled, we have to help them develop a positive attitude towards rules and authority figures, so they will choose to keep to the rules because they provide safety or fairness.
Smacking, along with other kinds of punishment, keeps the parent in control of the child instead of using methods that gradually help the child to have self control. Punishment takes the child’s attention away from the positive reasons for keeping to rules and tends to hinder the development of real self-control. Punishment may only teach the child to avoid getting caught.
Another major reason for not using punishment is that punishment is based on the principle that it’s OK to control a child by inflicting some degree of pain, suffering or discomfort, which I like to believe parents would only do if they can’t think of a better way. The principle that says it's OK to control others by inflicting pain and suffering is the principle behind extremes such as terrorism and extortion. Although it would be stupid to associate smacking with terrorism, my concern is that when we teach a child a principle like that, we have no way of knowing - and no control over - how far down that road the child will go when trying to control the behaviour of other people later in life.
I would suggest that the line between smacking and abuse is crossed if the parent knows there are better ways to teach, assist and guide children to become self-controlled but refuses to learn those ways, or the parent knows those better ways and chooses not to use them. My books, Travelling the Road of Peace and Happiness, and Enjoy Parenting Teenagers present many simple ways to help kids develop a positive attitude to rules and authority figures, and maintains that it is never too late to start.
Photo by Microsoft.