Saturday 24 February 2018

The Slap: Who gets hurt when you hit your child?

It's not easy bringing up baby in a rapidly changing, increasingly digital world where none of the old certainties - and few of the old rules - apply anymore. So is it ever OK to smack your child?

Is it ever ok to slap a child?
Is it ever ok to slap a child?
Ten family rules: Laura Haugh with her children, James and Lucy.
Blessed: Donna Marie Cloke from Enniscorthy with her family, husband Michael and children, Jack (6), Cameron (11), Katie (7). Photo: Patrick Browne
Deirdre Reynolds

Deirdre Reynolds

Spare the rod and spoil the child? Most parents agree that corporal punishment doesn't work and as many as three in five think it should be illegal. But that doesn't mean it has gone away, and when Pope Francis came out in favour last week it reignited the debate.

But if parents don't choose, or weren't allowed, to physically chastise their erring offspring, what alternatives are there available to them in carrying out the toughest job of all: rearing children - especially in the increasingly secular, digital, multi-choice world of today?

Pope Francis certainly seemed to have taken the essence of Proverbs 13:24 to heart last week.

Speaking at his weekly general audience recently, the Pontiff has been interpreted as telling parents it's OK to slap their children to discipline them - so long as it's not on the face.

In a homily about the responsibilities of fatherhood, the 78-year-old told around 7,000 people gathered in St Peter's Square: "One time, I heard a father in a meeting with married couples say 'I sometimes have to smack my children a bit, but never in the face so as to not humiliate them'.

"How beautiful," he added. "He knows the sense of dignity. He has to punish them but does it justly and moves on."

As the Vatican moved to downplay the Pope's comments on corporal punishment this week, many were still smarting.

"We were really dismayed to hear that from a Pope who has seemingly been very forward-thinking," says Aoife Griffin, head of advocacy at the ISPCC (Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). "It sets the whole conversation back another few years.

"If you slapped someone in the street, you would be arrested straight away," she adds. "Yet when it comes to children, we tend to call it a 'light tap', and water it down.

"We're trying to change hearts and minds, so for someone like the Pope - who is spiritual leader to so many millions around the world - to effectively say slapping is OK and it's a beautiful thing is very frustrating."

Unlike Italy, and the 15 other EU countries where corporal punishment has been banned, it's not illegal to smack your own child in Ireland.

While corporal punishment is outlawed in schools and crèches here, under a century-old act, parents are still entitled to use "reasonable chastisement" in the home.

Almost 60pc of Irish parents don't believe that smacking works as a punishment, according to one study published by the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (OMCYA).

Yet over 40pc confessed to smacking their child at least once anyway.

"We asked 1,350 parents anonymously about their attitude to physical punishment and the extent to which they used it," explains Dr Elizabeth Nixon of Trinity College Dublin's School of Psychology and Children's Research Centre, who co-authored the 2010 report, Parents' Perspectives on Parenting Styles and Discipling Children in Ireland.

"58pc said they'd never smacked their child, meaning 42pc would have used physical punishment - 25pc in the past year.

"The interesting thing is that parents had quite mixed views of the effectiveness of it: 56pc said it was effective at the time, which meant that 44pc thought it didn't work at the time, while 58pc didn't think it worked to prevent misbehaviour into the future.

"If over half of parents don't think it's effective as a discipline strategy, I suppose it begs the question why are they still doing it?"

Dublin-based parent/child coach Helen Sholdice of www.­ believes: "Most people who admit hitting children have been hit as a child.

"Once we know what that felt like, we're empathetic - or should be - to this generation of children.

"When a child is physically ill-treated, it effects their entire self-esteem," she adds. "They begin to question their lovability and capability. In fairness, most parents that I've met know that this is not on, and often seek support because they want to stop.

"Precisely because it is generational, we have a huge responsibility to stop it now."

Indeed, in a companion OMCYA study examining Children's Perspectives on Parenting Styles and Disciplining Parents in Ireland, schoolgoers spoke of feeling "unloved" after being slapped by their mum or dad for misbehaving.

"They really felt a very negative response," tells Dr Elizabeth Nixon, "They described a whole range of negative feelings when they were physically punished - they talked about feeling 'unloved', 'upset', 'embarrassed'.

"Having something they valued taken away from them actually made them think about [what they were being punished for]."

Time-out and the naughty step are just two of the Supernanny-style admonishments that play therapist Helen Sholdice insists beat the wooden spoon any day: "Usually when parents or children are worked up they move around a lot.

"When we are frightened or angry, we want to discharge that energy - that's when parents strike out at a child.

"One of the most important things is for the parent to get in touch with their own feelings first," she advises. "I often tell parents to give themselves a time-out.

"Thinking before we act isn't always easy - and I've seen parents really put to the pin of their collar. Moving out of the situation, even if it's just to go and make a cup of tea, gives them time to think before they act."

Galway mum-of-two Martha Fraser of AmazingME! - an online programme to help women stay on top of things - agrees: "Part of disciplining children is making sure mum feels good herself.

"If mum is feeling down or exhausted, sometimes that pressure can be taken out on children without mum realising it.

"Women today are trying to do so much," she continues. "It's really important for mum to put a little time away for themselves - even if it's 10 minutes.

"Being aware of moments where you can insert calm into your day can make all the difference if you then have kids who are misbehaving."

With 81pc of parents expressing regret for smacking their child, and just 5pc saying it made them feel ­better, according to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs findings, contrary to papal teachings, could it be time to spare the rod altogether?

"People who grew up getting slapped often say, 'Well, it didn't do us any harm'," tells Aoife Griffin of the ISPCC, which is calling for a complete ban on corporal punishment, "but did it do them any good?

"One of the arguments is that people would be afraid of spoiling their children, but children don't get spoiled because parents are nice and gentle, and treat them like human beings."

Last year, a survey by the ISPCC and the Children's Rights Alliance found that 57pc of people here would support a ban on slapping.

"Children have human rights," says parent/child coach Helen Sholdice. "It's enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [that] they have the right to be safe - that is why I take exception to the Pope's comments.

"If you start to legislate for parents, in that they can't hit their children, yes, it will sober up parents.

"I feel it's more about education, and helping parents to understand the devastating effects on children when they hit."

In 2013, the Association for the Protection of All Children (APPROACH) complained to the European Committee of Social Rights that Ireland "has taken no effective action to remedy its violation of Article 17 by prohibiting all corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment of children".

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has also called on Ireland to "explicitly prohibit all forms of corporal punishment in the family".

Following a visit to Ireland in 2011 however, the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, assured that criminalising corporal punishment completely would not lead to the widespread prosecution of parents.

"Fears are unfounded that such a ban would lead to the criminal prosecution of parents on a large scale, as judicial authorities enjoy a margin of discretion," he said.

"A complete ban would send a strong signal of respect for children to society at large and would bring Ireland into line with its international obligations."

Dr Elizabeth Nixon from TCD states: "Regardless of how it's policed, [banning corporal punishment] sends a very important message about how our state views the rights of children.

"It sends the message that using an act of violence against another person - whether it's a child or an adult - is not acceptable in society."

"Parents shouldn't be fearful about something like this happening," adds Aoife Griffin.

"It's not about punishing parents - it's about building a culture of positive parenting.

"But the legislation should be there so that the resources to support parents who feel smacking is the only thing they have left to use with a child who is misbehaving can follow."

"The word 'discipline' comes from the Latin 'to teach'," she says, "the only thing slapping teaches children is how to slap."

Our story: 'In the heat of the moment, sometimes the wooden spoon might seem like a simpler solution...'

Laura Haugh, who has two children, James (5) and Lucy (3)

'On, we regularly see exasperated mums looking for methods of discipline that work. While most of our mums agree that slapping is wrong, if mum is tired, and has two or three children acting up, slapping can come in very quickly. There is definitely a level of understanding for mums who slapped once and felt absolutely awful about it afterwards.

Today, lots of parents use the naughty step or time-out to discipline their children, or take away their favourite toy. The problem is that they're flip-flopping between different methods so the child ends up being confused, and playing up even more.

In the heat of the moment, sometimes the wooden spoon might seem like a simpler solution - but where do you draw the line?

Whether they admit it or not, every mum has thought about slapping their child. Slapping may work initially, but eventually the child forgets what they've done wrong, and may even do it again just to get back at the perpetrator, which is the parent. In our home, we have 10 family rules that everybody has signed up to on our kitchen wall, including: 'There is no slapping' and 'There is sharing'. In the long run, praising them when they're good is far more effective than punishing them when they're bold."

Laura Haugh is 'mum-in-residence' at

Our Story: 'Once when Cameron was about four, I gave him a slap after he acted up. . . I only ended up crying about it afterwards'

When it comes to disciplining their three children, Cameron (11), Katie (7) and Jack (6), Wexford mum Donna Cloke says she and husband Michael - both singer-songwriters - are singing from the same hymn sheet:

'Growing up, the wooden spoon was threatened on me and my three siblings practically every 10 minutes. After my sister did finally get a slap of it though, she got a marker and drew a sad face on it. When my mother saw it, she felt so bad that she snapped it in two and threw it in the fire - and that was the end of the wooden spoon in our house.

Since becoming a mum, I know exactly how hard it can be to keep your cool when you've got three kids tugging out of you, going: 'Mam! Mam! Mam!' But I certainly wouldn't be turning to the Pope for advice on how to discipline them.

We're blessed with our three. I've never been put in the situation where I had to redden them for anything. Although our naughty step is nearly worn out! At 11, Cameron is getting a bit too old for time-out. Last week, when they were fighting over the tablet, I took it away and handed one of them a mop, one a brush and one a dustpan instead. When they finally got the tablet back that evening, they were quiet as mice! Over the years, I'm sure they got a smack on the bum a couple of times.

Once when Cameron was about four, I remember taking him out to the car and giving him a slap on the bum after he acted up in Dunnes Stores. For any light tap they got though, it wasn't worth it. And I only ended up crying about it afterwards.

Cameron, Katie and Jack have such different personalities that disciplining them in the same way doesn't work. If I let a roar at Katie, who's very outgoing, she'd be well able for it; if I let a roar at Jack, who's more shy, he'd lose his life. At this stage, they know the ground rules when we're out. As well as disciplining them when they misbehave, we always treat them when they're good. When it comes to keeping manners on the kids, happily we're on the same wavelength too. Children don't come with a manual. As parents, you can only hope you're doing the right thing."

Michael and Donna released their first duet, 'Right Here, Right Now', this week.

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