Slapping and children

Research carried out on this topic has shown that the majority of parents would prefer to use non-physical ways of disciplining their children. Also, parents are keen to learn about other methods of discipline but often find it difficult to access this information.

Arguments for and against slapping

There are two opposing sides to this argument. On the one hand you have those who would say that any form of physical punishment, no matter how light, is abusive and should be outlawed. On the other hand you have those who advocate that parents should be allowed to do their job and that the State has no right to interfere with private family matters even if there are concerns about abuse.

Most people would fall somewhere between these two opposing lines. While they do not like the use of slapping as a form of discipline, they see it as an inevitable way of keeping control over their children’s behaviour. Most parents who do slap their children are not cruel and unloving, they are deeply committed and are doing what they feel is in their child’s best interests.

However research does show that many of those parents who slap their children are not very happy with this approach but continue with it as they do not see any viable alternative. Some research would also indicate that despite the fact that they use slapping, many parents do not regard it as an effective discipline technique.

So why is slapping so common?

One major factor may relate to how we as parents have learned about discipline techniques. A generation or two ago, slapping was seen as an acceptable way of disciplining children. Many of our parents would have used this approach, and while they may not have liked it they certainly didn’t see it as being harmful.

Research has shown that the way we parent our children is very much influenced by the way in which we were parented and the discipline techniques we use are often modelled on and learned from our parents. So for the many of us who were slapped when we were children, it is natural for us to use and see slapping as a valid approach.

Hence the conflict we experience when slapping is debated, whereas we were reared in a society that fully accepted slapping as a method of discipline, knowledge of the damage severe slapping can do to a child means that our society is no longer as clearly in favour of slapping.

Parents who use slapping infrequently and only in situations where their child may be in danger are quite different from those parents who use excessive physical punishments. In public debates these differences are sometimes forgotten and all parents who slap their children are lumped together. This is very unfair to those who rarely use slapping and then not in an excessive way, they are made to feel they are doing something very wrong.

Alternatives to slapping

One area that is often not touched upon in this whole debate is that fact that it is unfair to ask parents to stop slapping or using physical punishments without first making the case against slapping and then giving parents the knowledge and skills to use alternative methods.

These include:

Praising good behaviour: Currently the accepted view within the mental health professions is that a positive approach to discipline is what works best. Rather than the emphasis being on looking for bad behaviour and punishing it, parents are advised to use an approach that acknowledges and praises good behaviour.

Setting clear limits and sticking to them: One understandable fear that advocates of physical punishment have is that the balance is too much in favour of children, and that because they are no longer punished for bad behaviour they do not learn good values and rules. However the current view in psychology and psychiatry is that it is vital that children learn rules and that parents are strict in setting down limits.

Withdrawal of treats/freedoms: While the consequences of misbehaviour need to be strong and meaningful, they do not have to involve physical punishments. Experts emphasise the use of naturalistic consequences, for instance, not getting to do a preferred activity, not getting treats, having to tidy up the mess, etc, and coupled with this, the importance of praising children when they behave well.

Parental attention: Parental attention is also recommended as a way of both rewarding good behaviour and punishing bad behaviour. Over the last few decades the power of parental attention has been demonstrated in many research projects. It is now seen as one of the most powerful tools parents have at their disposal. Many of the new discipline techniques being developed rely on using parental attention to shape children’s behaviours.

There are a number of alternatives and how parents use them is essentially up to individual parents as what may suit one couple or parent may not suit another. The key is to have a number of different approaches and to use them in a flexible but consistent manner.

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