Why we changed our minds about smacking

Summary (for those too lazy busy to read the whole thing).

  1. We’ve come to view treating symptoms (punishing) as far less effective than treating causes.
  2. We find punishment demeaning and disrespectful.
  3. Smacking a child for smacking (a common unacceptable behaviour) seems hypocritical.
  4. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests smacking causes more harm than good.
  5. There are plenty of other options that are both respectful and effective.
  6. In light of 4. and 5., on weighing all the other information we’ve had available to us, and on the balance of probabilities, smacking appears redundant, if not downright harmful.

If I’ve piqued your curiosity, read on.


Despite how it might seem, Amazing Husband and I haven’t always been co-sleeping, babywearing, term breastfeeding, juicing, wholefoods eating, organic vege growing, anti-mainstream schooling, non-vaxing, homeopathy favouring, gentle parenting hippies.

It’s true. It’s been a gentle evolution, from unquestioningly accepting all we were taught about these things – that normal and necessary was babies sleeping in their own rooms/crying to sleep if necessary, routined feeding, suppressing symptoms rather than getting to the root cause, eating low fat (no matter how processed), smacking when required, time-out if necessary, children being punished for wanting attention etc.

Yup, we used to be pro-smacking. Our parents did it, so it must be ok, right? Lord B got smacked on the hand  when he kept pesking things. (This was largely cos I was lazy and also very pregnant and couldn’t be bothered dealing with it any other way. Also cos I didn’t really know of other options.)

It didn’t work.

It didn’t work when he got smacked on the leg or bottom, either. That only happened once or twice. He just laughed.

It was almost an accident that we were introduced to other ways of parenting. When I got pregnant again at 8 months pp and stopped eating, I wasn’t sure what to do about breastfeeding Lord B. I’d wanted to feed till at least a year but was worried about sustaining it without any input. (Good thing I’d never lost all my Lord B baby weight.) I finally decided I needed the help of La Leche League. I didn’t know anyone who’d tandem fed, though I had been amazed by a mother I’d met briefly on a family camp who told me she did it. Where better to find out more than the Milk Club?

Milk Club (actually La Leche League) has a great little library, which I started borrowing from every month. Boy were those books interesting. One of the most interesting, which opened my eyes to a whole new way of communicating with people in general, not just children, was “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish.

My kids were still too young for most of the practical ideas, but the theories behind them fascinated me. It was based on understanding where people are coming from, stating positions/feelings respectfully, and finding win-win outcomes. Together. Collaboration rather than dictation. Expression rather than suppression. Can’t think of any more apt but corny catch-phrases.

It’s hardly a surprise that these ideas resonated with me. One of the things I remember best about law school was when we looked at restorative justice. It seemed a much more effective system than what we actually use (yes, practicalities, resources, people not cooperating, yadayada). It’s not about punishment for doing stuff wrong, it’s about seeing all those involved in a crime as having been hurt by it and needed healing/restoring. Not in a warm fuzzy “oh you poor thing you must be suffering so much to do something like that here have a hot chocolate and hug each other” kind of way; more of a “figuring out how to make restitution, and also sorting out what’s going on so the offender is less likely to reoffend” kind of way. Maybe I’m just naive, but that seems a lot more effective than saying “you’re naughty, here’s your punishment [go hang out with a bunch of other criminals so you can learn how to be a better criminal] and make sure you don’t do it again”.

You can see where this is heading, right? Punishment just doesn’t make sense to me.

But before I go further with that, another brief point on how we got there.

I’d been learning about more natural, holistic ways of being healthy. Diet, homeopathy, healing/prevention from the inside, not just putting a plaster on the wound and expecting no more symptoms to occur. (Yeah I was kinda sceptical of homeopathy for a while, but when I couldn’t even walk while coughing and pregnant with Sir A – mothers will understand why – and the cough that I’d had for 10 years on and off which the doctor could do nothing for just wasn’t going away, it seemed a good time to put it to the test once and for all. Two days later I was cough free, and have hardly been troubled by it since. So there.) The point here is that we were learning that treating symptoms is pointless – one has to get to the root cause if one wants to solve the problem.

When it came to behavioural problems with the chidders, I realised that often it was actually me that was the problem, not them. My intolerance of their ways of doing things, my inability to deal with my own emotions. To make it easier on all of us we started looking more at what was driving behaviour we didn’t like, and what could be done about it. Sometimes that meant feeding a hungry child – can be an instant fix – moving them outside if they start throwing things (usually need to burn off some energy), having some cuddles and a story if they’re repeatedly doing things they know they shouldn’t (upon discussion with Lord B, such occasions usually turn out to be him feeling ignored; mostly cos he is, poor chap).

It can be simple things like having undies up their crack that’s causing whinging, being scared of something that’s making them uncooperative, or simply not understanding what is expected. W’e’re learning new ones all the time.

Basically we stopped (by stopped I mean that’s our ideal, not always reality…) thinking of them as being naughty, and started seeing needs that needed to be met to get the desired behaviour. Basically treating them like we treat each other when we’re being grumpy or uncooperative.

We also try really hard to model the behaviour we want to see, like handling toys gently, putting things away when we’re done with them (lightbulb – maybe they look at the kitchen too often. Crap.), saying please and thank you, using a respectful tone. Damn little mirrors that kids are!

Being understanding of their needs not only helps us help them better, it stops us getting annoyed or angry as often, since we’re able to view things from a different perspective. Yeah we still fail on that one often, but we’re improving. I think. We know they’re not adults and can’t be talked to in the same way, but we just can’t see that they deserve less respect as a result. In a way they deserve more respect and understanding, since they often have no way of knowing what they should do, or of controlling their impulses even if they do know. It would also seem very hypocritical to say, while they’re trying to bash each other over the head, “I won’t let you do that. We don’t hit.” when we do hit, and when often the result of continued hitting of each other would result in a smack on the butt.

There’s also the fact that I only ever feel the need to smack my kids when I’m getting pretty pissed off with them. Clearly a bad time to do it.

Basically, we think punishment of any sort is counter-productive. I could write a long post just about that, but it boils down to the idea of going to the root cause of undesirable behaviour and addressing that, rather than just punishing the behaviour. Sure, that might work as a deterrent, I couldn’t say, but it wouldn’t solve the problem and if it did work, the child would be doing or not doing something because of fear of punishment, rather than because of a recognition that it is good or bad to do something in and of itself. (For the same reason we avoid rewards and try to avoid praise in a way that makes it sounds like pleasing us is the most important thing.) And that we hardly want to please people that treat us punitively, so why would kids?

We want our children to obey us because they trust we know best, or because they understand what we’re on about, not because of fear. We want to them build a self-discipline independent of others’ opinions so they do what they know they ought to when no one is looking, not worrying about reward or punishment other than the direct consequences of their actions. We even want them to defy us when they think we’re wrong (discussion to clarify would, of course, follow) so they know it’s ok to say no.

And no, that doesn’t mean we don’t set limits, that we let our kids do whatever they want and get away with things that are unacceptable. I’m sure some limits we set do see like punishment, in that the child is not getting what he wants, but it is not intended as such, and we make a point to talk about how it must feel, helping them identify different feelings and what to do about them. Sure, our ideas might change more as they get older, but for now this seems by far the best way to go about things.


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