Smacking Children

I have now been retired for six years but worked for many years as a psychologist and have had experience with children and various aspects of parenting and behaviour management. My knowledge of the research is obviously somewhat out of date but this research appears to have moved only in the direction it was going when I still worked. This was to reinforce the logic that there are better ways to train children than by force and fear. But as this Conversation has become very anecdotal I thought here I would merely recount my own personal anecdote.

Like most of us I am generally a law abiding person. I have, however, been guilty of three unintentional speeding offences in my  55 years of driving. Each of these was for being more than 5ks but less than 10ks over the local limit. Each time I had thought I was driving to the conditions but had missed signs or in one case, the time. How many more incidents would I have had if we were all allowed to drive to what we thought were safe conditions? Would I have had any accidents? I hate to think.

Being allowed to drive according to what we each assess are “safe” driving conditions is much the same as deciding our own “safe” smacking of children.  

I have, over my working life, talked to two doctors who recommended to parents that they should use a wooden spoon when chastising a child as the spoon would break and the child would not be as much at risk as if a hand or fist were used. I have spoken to one school teacher who felt that it was OK to put pepper on children’s tongues if they were swearing.  What happens in many cases when the ideas like these from experienced professionals are be taken as the norm for safe parenting?

I have never believed in smacking my children but did so on one memorable occasion (at least very memorable to me but my son claims I have been  more scarred by the event than he  was). Would I have thought twice about inflicting a physical punishment if I knew it was so universally disapproved of as to be illegal?

And this was not even punishment for a “hanging  offence”. 

The circumstances were that I had held a birthday party for said eldest son when he was 8 years old. (I had three other younger children.) The party was a “space” party and great pains had been taken, even to the extent of the construction of cardboard and celiophane space helmets instead of party hats. It was quite a successful party. It was amazing how creative children could become, for example in the use of ” moon rocks”, otherwise known as chocolate crackles.

My son received many great presents, among them some sea monkeys. These are brine shrimps and were novel at the time. He was anxious to start the evolution of these dried out flakes into the live beings they were supposed to become but I told him after the party that he needed to wait until an adult had ascertained that he was reading the instructions accurately. He did not obey this injunction. As I continued to clean up the moon rock fragments, wipe up the drink spilt from cups and straws that had to be squeezed to cope with pretend weightlessness, vacuum up the interplanetary dust spilt from bread triangles, he conducted the experiment himself, did not properly purify the water and the promised creatures did not materialize.

Exhausted, and probably having had a couple of wines as I put the littlest children to bed, I smacked him when he whinged about the sea monkeys’ disappointing non-appearance and sent him to his room.

When I had finished the cleaning up I returned to discuss this, what seemed to me at the time very serious, matter and he was excitedly in his bed, delighted with his other presents and apparently having forgotten the existence of such things as sea monkeys.

I gratuitously smacked him again for not reading the instructions and being unrepentant about it.

Would I have done this if it had been illegal? I like to think perhaps not.

In the cold light of dawn it was very clear to me why I smacked him. It was not really to train him in the art of being a good instruction reader. It was not because he disobeyed a direct order, after all who was I to give orders about his gift? It was because I, myself, wanted to see the sea monkey experiment work and was disappointed. I am fairly small, quite weak and not usually physically aggressive and there was no physical hurt, but it was still wrong. It was me exhibiting my own frustration. I knew he needed to suffer the logical consequences of his impatience so I could never buy another kit of these creatures. My own anticipated curiosity would never be satisfied!

As it turned out he did indeed become an excellent instruction reader and he was often called on by his younger siblings to read and demonstrate to them how things worked. He has grown up to be an academic with a penchant for words. But was this experience responsible for this? Did it, instead, stop him from ever being able to have that pure scientific Newtonian apple moment? I assume neither of the above, but it is a good question for me to ask myself.

Little children should never need to be smacked. They can be easily removed from the desirable object be it too hot or the big sister’s pony tail they are pulling. And part of the learning process is to know why, such as by use of “hot” or another appropriate word. They must learn the “why” to internalize the appropriate behaviour. I do not think “because I tell you to” is ever a good reason for children. One of my grandsons, produced by one of my non-smacked children, had a bit of difficulty distinguishing between “dangerous” and “precious” but he did understand both to mean “keep clear” and then learnt the difference between the whys!

Whilstsoever children are small enough to be calmly restrained by a parent or adult there should be no need to expose them to deliberate physical hurt or pain.

And when they are too big to restrain there is no point! Who is the winner in a physical contest? At that stage they should be open to conversation. They can speak the language. They know parental views and stances. Sometimes we should be prepared to listen to them and their expressed needs to know why they are disobedient or angry. And we need, occasionally, to be open to be convinced by them as well as being able to convince them.

Meanwhile I have never seen live sea monkeys (even though I just googled them again and find I can still buy them). But I think I won’t. That is my reminder that when one is with children one must act like the adult. I should never have given in to my own childish emotions or feelings of unnegotiated supremacy by hitting a child, though that is not, even yet, illegal.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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