Saturday 24 March 2018

To smack or not to smack?

The great debate on slapping children could soon be over as the Government looks at making it illegal.

It soon won’t matter which side you’re on in the Great Slapping Debate, because smacking a child is likely to become illegal soon
It soon won’t matter which side you’re on in the Great Slapping Debate, because smacking a child is likely to become illegal soon

Áilín Quinlan

It soon won’t matter which side you’re on in the Great Slapping Debate, because smacking a child is likely to become illegal soon.

The Government is currently reviewing the defence of reasonable chastisement — which allows smacking — in response to criticism from the Council of Europe in May that Ireland’s laws on corporal punishment were in clear breach of the European Social Charter.

“The way the wind is blowing, things are going to change and you won’t be allowed to smack your child,” observes  psychotherapist Stella O’ Malley, author of the bestselling parenting book, Cotton Wool Kids.

Her prediction was underlined by a spokesperson for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs who explained that “in the case of parents, or persons acting in loco parentis (other than teachers), a common-law defence of reasonable chastisement may be available where a prosecution arises.”

She added, however, that the department was currently consulting with the departments of Justice and Equality, to “determine the possibility within the Irish legal framework, for removing the common-law defence in order for children to have the same legal protection as adults under existing law relating to assault”.

O’Malley says she is an advocate of the defence of reasonable chastisement, adding that most Irish parents are generally “very loving and want to do the right thing for their children”.

And she predicts that, in the event of a ban on smacking, a lot of anxious parents will “overuse” what are perceived to be more social acceptable concepts around discipline, such as  forcing a child to sit on ‘the naughty step’ or the ‘ thinking  step’ to ponder their bad behaviour.

Such supposedly acceptable strategies — along with the belief that shouting at children in a temper is better than giving them a smack — can sometimes be more aggressive than the delivery of a “quick tap”, she believes.

“I tend to stay away from generalisations about corporal punishment,” O’Mahony observes, adding that some towering young 6’3” fathers seem to feel it’s fine  to roar at a tiny cowering two-year-old, but that it’s completely unacceptable to deliver a calm and controlled tap on the bum.

“I see a lot of parents shouting at children and this is very aggressive and quite intimidating, and probably, in effect, more violent than a small tap delivered without the loss of your temper,” she warns.


Major issues for parents around disciplining children are the potential loss of control and the need to understand that what you are teaching the child is self-discipline.

She says: “If you have lost control when disciplining your child; by screaming your head off for example, it’s very damaging.”

But just how does a stressed-out adult stay calm and in control once a smack is out of the question? The following guidelines could be helpful:

1. Anticipate a problem which has proved to be a recurring issue — for example, reluctance to do homework — and prepare to discuss it at a calm time.

“Explain to the child that we are having arguments about this — and ask what should we do?” O’Mahony

advises. “Discuss the problem in a reasonable way and come to an agreement.”

You don’t want to fight and your child doesn’t want to fight either, and will be willing to discuss the issue.

2. Let the child both agree the rule and the consequence for non-compliance, she advises. This means they are buying into the agreement.

There is another element to this, says O’Malley, who believes it can also be a good idea for parents to simply warn a child of the logical consequences of an action, such as not doing their homework — the teacher will be very cross — and to then stand back and let it happen.

“You can have a quiet word with the teacher about a child’s refusal to do their homework — and then let the child feel the consequences,” she advises. 

3. Always implement the agreed consequence in the context of any non-compliance.

4. If you are having a row with your child, restructure your environment. Turn off the radio or the TV, or leave the room with the child and have the discussion elsewhere.

“Noise levels exacerbate problems,” explains O’Mahony.

5. Before wading into an unavoidable row over a disciplinary issue, parents should step away, “breathe” and consider the issue at hand, she says.

You are the leader — don’t lose it!

6. Implement reasonable sanctions. If, for example, a child won’t pick up their toys, explain that you will pick them up — but that you will confiscate them. Then do that.

7. Reward good behaviour — hang up a ‘star chart’ and explain that, for instance, accumulating 10 gold stars equals a trip to the playground and an ice cream.

8. Show empathy — hold the child’s hand or give him or her a hug when they have difficulty being good. Empathise verbally, explaining for example that you can see why they might not want to do their homework when the sun is shining outside.

9. Humour them out of their insubordination. “Gentle humour works a treat with some children but it completely depends on the individual,” cautions O’Malley.

10. Use ‘I’ statements when possible. For example: “When I see you texting on your phone at the dinner table, I feel frustrated because I was looking forward to a happy family meal and now I feel excluded and upset.”

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