We’ve heard that the Welsh government is about to ban parents from smacking their children.
In England reasonable physical chastisement by parents can be seen as lawful in some situations, but the general consensus is that smacking isn’t an appropriate way to manage children’s behaviour. There are lots of good reasons for avoiding smacking, including the fact it models to children that physical aggression is the way to solve problems. Children get to understand that their parents are willing to hurt them to make them do the right thing, and that’s not ‘a good look’ for any relationship (sound relationships are the foundation of getting other people, including kids, to cooperate). No-one feels good after they have smacked their child and as there is usually a ‘smacking hangover’ for the child and adult, with lots of regret and distress, this tells us it’s best avoided!
For parents who want to try other ways of managing difficult behaviour, early intervention methods are crucial to prevent things getting out of hand. Smacking often happens when parents are worried because the child has done, or is about to do, something dangerous. So early pre-emptive action might include preparing the child for potentially risky situations by explaining what is going to happen and what’s expected of them. This means adults thinking ahead, considering possible pitfalls and then communicating with the child whilst everyone is calm. Let them know what your boundaries are and what will happen if they don’t follow your instructions.
So a day at the beach may have some clear guidelines about going in the sea, and if necessary some possible consequences outlined if they can’t stick to what you have said. This might be that you will not be allowing them in the sea again for a period of time. Then watch them closely and follow through without a big fuss! Consequences do not have to be harsh to be effective, they need to be clearly, calmly and confidently expressed and then implemented just as calmly and very consistently, with no giving in. Alongside all this firmness and follow through and, just as importantly, good supervision, guidance and lots of positive attention usually works best to keeps children on the straight and narrow. So adults who play with their kids on the beach, support them to manage situations which they find difficult, use distraction when things begin to look tricky and find some rewards for appropriate behaviour can largely prevent crises and may not need to resort to consequences.
If your child is liable to step randomly into the road be firm before they are in the situation. With absolute clarity let them know exactly what you’ll tolerate on the roadside and what will happen if they step over the mark. Holding onto your hand and not walking with their little friends for a short while if they go too near the kerb maybe? Watching them like a hawk, taking confident immediate action, and doing what you threatened is very important. As is giving them another chance later to prove they can do it.
Having reasonable consequences up your sleeve is key to addressing these situations – avoid big (later regretted) consequences made up on the spur of the moment. Taking a small but decisive step to inconvenience them is sometimes all it takes. With younger children calm removal from ‘the action’ can be effective, with a reintroduction to the same situation soon after and a clear instruction to do as asked. To get to play or interact they need to do the opposite of the problem behaviour. Then they are watched carefully to make sure they do follow instructions (and removed again if they don’t).
With older children there can be a removal of a desirable device or activity for a short while which can be reinstated as soon as they show they are willing to follow your expectations.
Smacking is sometimes about a parent becoming frustrated and getting to the end of their tether. Having a plan about the measures you will take to prevent and deal with typical incidents of bad behaviour, and taking steps to remain calm and ‘centred’ will mean that these incidents are more likely to be dealt with appropriately rather than in irrational and emotional ways.
As part of the plan, any concerning situation which has warranted some decisive parental action is best followed by a ‘de-brief’ which is a serious but supportive conversation about what happened and what can be learnt from it. This takes place when things are a little calmer; children learn best when they are relaxed and responsive. This will include discussion, at the child’s level, about the steps they need to take to make amends and an agreement about how to behave next time.
In these ways children learn to behave appropriately guided by assertive, calm and compassionate parents, and if managed in this way (rather than with physical punishment) they are less likely to be cowered, resentful and fearful.