Advice for parents from expert David Carey
Q: I'm a 32-year-old father of a 9-year-old boy. He is very disobedient and rough with his younger sister. He can be rude to me and my partner. My father, who is 67, tells me he needs a good slap and that I am too soft on my son. I wonder if my father's right. Is slapping going to teach my son the lesson he needs?
Many people believe that smacking or slapping a child is a good way to discipline them. We need to understand something really important about slapping and smacking children: it hurts!
When an adult hits a child, the adult is deliberately inflicting pain on the child's body. It doesn't teach the child what to do; it only temporarily prevents the child from doing something.
Genuine discipline teaches children how to behave. Discipline is a way to teach a child. Slapping is a way to stop a child from doing something the adult doesn't like. Slapping does not teach anything.
There has been a lot of research about the effect of slapping children. Amongst the findings are the following:
• We know for a fact that more socially acceptable methods, such as logical and natural consequences, are more effective in directing children's behaviour. Children disciplined along these lines have been shown to grow to be more moral and competent in adulthood. Smacking reduces the likelihood of rearing a moral and competent child.
• When smacking is used to reduce the amount of undesirable behaviours in children, the child who is smacked is highly likely to come to believe they are undesirable children. This impression lowers self-esteem and can have lifetime consequences.
• There is no doubt now, based on massive research, that children learn by watching what adults do. They imitate the behaviour of adults, especially those closest to them, and incorporate that behaviour into their life skills. That is why the child who is smacked so often grows to be an adult who smacks children. You hear it every day, "I got smacked and it didn't do me any harm." Children who grow up with this belief system will rely on physical punishment rather than logic, persuasion and the intelligent use of behavioural methods.
There is a growing body of research that effective methods of discipline in schools and other institutions requires controlling a huge number of variables including the environment itself. Without exploring all these variables, smacking will never be useful and will only create resentment, rage, hostility and a sense of powerlessness that will never reduce incidents of misbehaviour.
We now know, based on the research, that slapping is not an effective method of discipline. It does not teach a child how to behave. It can, however, teach a child that physical force is a way to solve problems.
Children who are regularly slapped often hit, push, bite or kick other children in order to get their way. These children have learned a dangerous lesson: that hitting is a means of solving problems.
Slapping can cause a lot of confusion in a child's mind. How can a child truly believe they are loved if they are hit by the people who are supposed to love them?
The conflicting messages sent to the child can't be properly understood. This confusion will result in the child being insecure and fearful of retribution. It can result in difficulties forming loving relationships in adult life.
No child who is slapped regularly can avoid the damaging results of slapping that last well into adult life. We need to understand the more powerful and useful means of disciplining our children. By using consequences and rewards, we teach a child how best to live in the world.
These children grow up secure in the knowledge they are loved and cherished. They grow up to be adults who can cooperate and communicate and who know how to settle difficulties with logic, patience and understanding instead of harsh words and physical aggression.
Let's think about what we want our children to become as adults. Once we have a clear focus on that, we will see that slapping will not help.
When your son is playing rough with his sister, it's time for you to use the magic sentence. It goes like this: "I'm really surprised you two can't play without upsetting and hurting one another - most children your age already know how to do that." Say it like you mean it, not in anger but in earnest. Say it, walk away and see what happens.
When your son is disobedient, it may be because you are giving him orders and not asking him nicely to do things. Then again, he may be in a bad mood. It's important not to rise to every provocation a child gives. Sometimes ignoring is effective.
Giving a child several choices, each of which is designed to get you the result you want, can be helpful. For example saying, "Would you like to brush your teeth, get into your pyjamas and go to bed, or would you rather brush your teeth, get into bed with your pyjamas on and be read a story?"
This will result in the child choosing and you get what you want: the child in bed. Remember to reward a child with praise and encouragement when they do something right or good enough. Praise can be an effective method of behaviour change. We often get into the habit of scolding more than we praise. Turn it around.
Consequences need to be simple and effective. Giving a child a chance to stop the offending behaviour or lose some video-game time (or any activity the child finds enjoyable) will often get them to change their behaviour.
Keep it simple: give a choice and follow through. If we fail to do what we say, we teach children that our words don't mean much at all.
Get the balance between scolding and praising correct. Provide three praising remarks for every scolding one and you will have the child behaving much better. Remember that children make mistakes.
Help them learn from them and guide them to better ways of acting. It works much better than slapping.
David is a psychologist; send your questions to email@example.com