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The S Word

To smack or not to smack? Where I grew up, born in the Eastern Cape, South Africa, in the ’80s, getting a smack was a common occurrence, not only because I was a very cheeky kid, but also because it was common punishment for naughty children. Living in London as I do now, twenty years later, it is plain to see that a parent smacking their child is far from common. In fact, not only is it rare, but it is also frowned upon. Some would even say that it’s child abuse.

Of course, the topic is often controversial and the debate can be a very heated one, and I guess it’s partly because parenting, and the way we’ve been disciplined, is a subject that relates to everyone, whether our parents are blood related or not, whether we’ve been raised by just a mum or dad, or whatever our individual experience may be. And for some of us, we are parents ourselves, or will be, and we’ve had to decisions to make about how we think we should act as parents, and how we should discipline our children.

Parenting and discipline is such an important topic. Having a child is a privilege and a gift, and one not everyone is able to experience. What an enormous responsibility it is to raise a child – not only because it so hugely affects the kind of person that child will one day become, but also because of the ways our lives must change as we take charge of a whole new life.

Naturally, because we are unique people, because we are all different and have different world views, the way one person raises a child can look completely different to the way another person chooses to.

Many studies have been conducted over the years. An article on the American Psychological Association website in April 2012 claimed that a “growing body of research has shown that spanking and other forms of physical discipline can pose serious risks to children”. The article quoted a psychology professor and principal investigator for the Child Violence and Trauma Laboratory at the University of Michigan, who said that the research is “extremely telling and very clear and consistent about the negative effects on children”, adding her belief that parents hitting their children could be out of frustration because “they don’t see there are other options”. It goes on to say that many studies have shown that physical punishment, including spanking, hitting and other means of causing pain, can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behaviour, physical injury and mental health problems for children.

Meanwhile, another study, this time discussed on The Telegraph’s website in April last year, stated that being a strict mother can be good for children as long as the discipline is tempered with a little love and affection. According to the article, parenting groups and charities “reacted angrily to the findings, maintaining that a child can suffer long term damage from physical discipline”. However, the study shows that the painful affects of harsh discipline, e.g. verbal threats and spanking, are offset by the child feeling loved, and being punished is unlikely to result in antisocial behaviour at a later stage as long as the child believes their punishment is coming from “a good place”.

These articles are, of course, written from certain perspectives and will therefore have some element of bias. The first one I referred to, for example, states “Americans’ acceptance of physical punishment has declined since the 1960s, yet surveys show that two-thirds of Americans still approve of parents spanking their kids”.

While each person can have their own individual ideas of what good parenting looks like, there can be certain similarities within cultures. It was when I was an au pair in America that I first discovered the phenomenon known as ‘time out’. Rather than smack their child when they misbehaved badly, parents there often chose to give them a time out instead, which consists of the child being separated from others for a set period of time. I guess the purpose behind a time out is A – for the child to feel the consequences of bad behaviour (not being able to join in the games with their friends, for example), and B – to understand why their behaviour was bad in the first place, and hopefully, to realise why they should say, and be, sorry.

But this isn’t only an American tradition, as I’ve noticed since moving to the UK. Here, too, the time out is used as a form of discipline. I’ve seen it being used by others and I’ve also seen it used by one of my favourite reality TV stars, supernanny Jo Frost, who herself is anti spanking and pro time out.

But not everyone agrees with the time out method either. An article published on Time in September this year states: “Studies in neuroplasticity—the brain’s adaptability—have proved that repeated experiences actually change the physical structure of the brain. Since discipline-related interactions between children and caregivers comprise a large amount of childhood experiences, it becomes vital that parents thoughtfully consider how they respond when kids misbehave. Discipline is about teaching – not about punishment – and finding ways to teach children appropriate behaviour is essential for healthy development.”

The article was written by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., co-author (with Siegel) of the ‘The Whole-Brain Child’. The authors go on to say that, in most cases, the primary experience a time out offers a child is isolation and rejection, even when presented in a patient and loving manner. The problem, they say, “is children have a profound need for connection”.

And what do they suggest is the correct way to discipline a child? “Next time the need for discipline arises, parents might consider a ‘time-in’: forging a loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting.”

At this point, I’d like to interject with my own opinion, based not on any psychological degree but purely on personal experience. To me, the above does not sound like discipline in any sense of the word. Will a child really think they have done anything wrong, or feel there is any need to seek forgiveness, if the only consequence for their bad action is that a grown up sits with them, talks to them and comforts them? I like to think I’m a comforting person. I really like to think I’m a comforting person to children, especially when they need it. But there’s a time and a place. And the occasion when a child misbehaves is not that time.

As a child, I was smacked, and not infrequently either. And, unlike the ideas posed by the first study I quoted, I don’t think I suffer from increased aggression, antisocial behaviour, physical injury and mental health problems. Sure, I have tendencies to be impatient and prone to anger, and I’m not proud of it. I may also be a bit of an introvert and thoroughly enjoy my ‘alone time’. But, in reflecting on the personality differences between my two brothers and I, with one of my brothers being the very ‘calm and collected’ type, while my other brother and I being less so, I think the obvious link here is  that these are our individual personality traits, rather than results of being smacked as children. In fact, I’d more likely believe our occasional temper tantrums are connected by our shared ginger roots. We’re fiery innit?

Personally, if I do one day have children, I don’t think I would choose to smack them. At least that’s my opinion as it stands now. I think there are other ways to punish children. However, I do believe that punishment is essential, and that children need to learn that there are consequences to bad behaviour. Whether that takes the form of smacking, a time out or something else, will differ from person to person, but if children misbehave and see no consequences for their behaviour, what’s to stop them from doing the same thing, or even worse, in the future?


  • Great topic Margot!
    As a child, I was hit as punishment. My EX husband was not hit. When my son needed boundaries set, I ‘felt’ like hitting, whereas my Ex did not. That must say something about learned behavior.
    I never hit my son as I believe the following to be true; When an adult hits a child, they are teaching that child 2 messages. 1) that the bigger, stronger person wins the battle, and 2) When one is angry or upset, hit to resolve the conflict.
    I like ‘time outs,’ however they are often implemented incorrectly.Parenting is a challenging and crucial job. I would love to see parenting courses taught at the high school level…mandatory and often.

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