Parenting experts say we need to address the negative impact of commonly accepted discipline approaches
Growing up under the threat of the wooden spoon is such a common shared experience in Ireland, it’s almost a collective joke. But is the threat of violence, or indeed violence itself (let’s fact it, the spoon wasn’t always an empty threat) as form of discipline really a laughing matter?
New evidence on the matter certainly makes for sombre reading. Research from University College London has found that smacking and harsh parenting could have a long-lasting impact on children’s mental health and behaviour.
Children on the receiving end were revealed to be more likely to exhibit ‘externalising problems’ like fighting with other children, lying, cheating or being hyperactive as well as ‘internalising problems’ such as often worrying about things or being shy.
“There is now a fairly large body of evidence to show that smacking children is harmful for them,” says Dr Rebecca Lacey, co-author of the research.
Smacking or slapping your child has been illegal in Ireland since The Children First Act was signed into law in 2015. But in the new research, ‘harsh parenting’ goes far beyond smacking and spanking. “We considered ‘harsh parenting’ to be frequent use of naughty step, shouting at children, taking away treats and bribery,” explains Dr Lacey.
This could come as a shock to many parents who would never consider themselves ‘harsh’ but are firm devotees to tactics like time outs.
Parenting expert Val Mullally, author of several parenting books on the topic, including Stop Yelling: Nine Steps to Calmer, Happier Parenting, reckons it’s about time we addressed the negative impact of commonly accepted discipline approaches.
“I am so concerned about the damage that ‘time out’ does,” she says. “I think it, and the naughty step, is a form of abandonment that can also be deeply hurtful to children and psychologically damaging. Shouting is also a concern because when we shout at someone, we’re over-powering them, we’re not treating them with mutual respect.”
The issue with these approaches, she says, is they are punishment based. “Punishment and discipline are not the same thing,” explains Val. “Punishment is when we use a fear approach to control the other person. Discipline is about seeking to support the child to grow into their fullness and move from discipline to self-discipline, where they can take responsibility for themselves in adult life.”
Harsh parenting might stop the challenging behaviour in that moment — but does the child really learn anything from it? Aoife Lee, a parenting coach at Parent Support (parentsupport.ie) and mum-of-three says ‘no’.
“There are a lot more effective ways to deal with a child’s challenging behaviour,” she says. Her youngest is three and just emerging from the tantrum stage. “I don’t always get it right,” laughs Aoife. “But what I find works is not feeding into the tantrums and instead identifying the triggers: Are they hungry? Are they tired? Were they up a lot during the night?”
She sees huge value in acknowledging and validating the feelings of a child who is upset or overwhelmed. “Younger children in particular can struggle with naming their feelings, so when we say ‘what’s happened?’ or ‘why are you upset?’ they don’t know how to answer. Instead, try saying to them ‘I can see you’re upset, you want that snack but you can’t have it now, you can have it after dinner’.”
She recommends constancy in boundary setting, involving the child in boundary setting and introducing the concept of consequences... so long as the consequence is “fair, immediate and easy to implement”.
“Sometimes we get caught up in ‘Stop’ or ‘You’re not allowed to do...’” adds Aoife. “Focus instead on telling children what you want them to do. So, instead of ‘stop jumping on the couch’ try ‘couches are for sitting on, down please’. You’re telling them what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do.”
Laura Erskine, parenting expert with BabyDoc club (babydocclub.ie) and mum-of-three, agrees. “As a parent, it can be hard to remember to reward the positive behaviour. You think, ‘they’re quiet and playing nicely, I’ll just leave well enough alone,’ but actually, catching your children when they’re behaving well and showering them with praise will encourage them to repeat this behaviour.”
When faced with more challenging scenarios, she tries to remember her ‘four Cs’. The first one is ‘count’. “I count to 10 to allow myself to calm down and think clearly, while also sending a message to my child that this is serious,” explains Laura. This is followed by looking at the cause, reacting with consistency and consequences.
With younger children, Laura believes “the best form of discipline can often be distraction or re-direction, where if your child is doing something that you don’t want them to do, you distract them with more appropriate behaviour.”
There will, of course, be those reading this scoffing at the idea of ‘gentle parenting’, that parents might need assistance from professionals in raising their children, or dismissing the recent research on the basis that “I was smacked and it didn’t do me any harm”.
“I would disagree,” says Val. “People might not recognise how smacking has harmed them, but I think both at an individual level and a societal level it has harmed us. I think we wouldn’t have such high crime rates, we wouldn’t have so much reactive behaviours, we’d have people connecting more with their best thinking and we’d have higher self-esteem if children were brought up in a way that was mutually respectful.”
And she strongly believes that parents need greater support. “I think it’s jolly hard work being a parent and parents deserve so much more support than they get.”
“I think we’re a generation of parents plagued with guilt, so I try my best not to beat myself up over being human and making mistakes in my own parenting,” agrees behaviour specialist and mum-of-two Deirdre Holland Hannon. “As a behaviour specialist supporting parents every week, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the pressure to get it right all the time, but that’s an unachievable goal so I don’t set it as one of mine.”
The big questions she asks herself as a parent when dealing with discipline are: “Have I led with empathy and compassion? Does the child really understand what’s going on here? Does the child really know or have the ability to behave differently? Are my expectations appropriate?”
It’s very easy to shout at the child you’ve found drawing on the wall — but was it realistic to leave them unattended with the felt-tips? Is it just the child who needs to change their ways?
“If the parent is too tied up in say, working long hours or in their social media, then the child is going to start acting up, not because the child is being ‘naughty’ but because they’re giving a very legitimate message to the parent that ‘I need more of you’,” says Val.
She recommends using HALT. Is the child hungry? Not necessarily just for food but hungry for attention? Are they anxious? Are they lonely or ill? Are they tired (not necessarily physically tired but tired of sitting or doing work?) “If we HALT, if we pause, when our children are acting out, sometimes we see that it’s us as parents that need to do differently,” she explains.
There can be a tendency to conflate ‘gentle parenting’ with ‘permissive parenting’. But “softer ways do not mean weaker ways,” says Val emphatically.
She’s upfront about the fact that she used to smack her own, now grown-up, sons. “I grew up in Africa, was a teacher and, at that time, I would have thought it was absolutely OK to sometimes give your child a smack,” she explains.
Then she started questioning the approach. “My second son went through a phase of pushing back so hard, I realised this way wasn’t working and that I needed to do something differently,” she says.
“I think that’s a message that parents need to hear — it’s never too late to do things differently.”