Last month saw the delightful news that Tony Abbott, the Australian Prime Minister, smacked his children. And his advice to the people of Australia is that ‘occasionally the best thing that we can give a kid is a smack’.
He could not be more wrong.
Both the RACP in Australia and the RCPCH in the UK have released position statements strongly opposing smacking. As paediatric doctors we have a duty to support these statements and as parents we should be leading by example.
Key Points from the RACP Position Statement
- Children are the only humans it is legal to hit in Australia
- The UN convention on the rights of the child which the government has signed explicitly mandates the protection of children from physical harm
- 33 countries have already outlawed smacking children
Smacking is not a grey area. Hitting people is wrong. Hitting children, even if they’re your own, is wrong. Smacking is completely and utterly wrong, with no exceptions.
And the absoluteness of this statement may well sit uncomfortably with some readers. Indeed, many of my friends have spoken to me about times when they’ve smacked their children and I’ve seen others do it in front of me. And I have three children of my own, so I am no stranger to how extremely frustrating parenting can be and just how tempting it is to lash out.
The defense arguments are weak: only smacking ‘gently’; or only on very specific occasions; or worse that it ‘never did you any harm’. These arguments do not stand up to scrutiny, and here’s why.
You are smacking your child to hurt them.
There is no dressing it up. A smack only works because it hurts. Otherwise you’d tickle them. So the idea that it will be gentle (or painless) simply doesn’t wash.
You only smack when you are out of control.
I’ve yet to find a parent who relishes smacking their child. It’s not a planned event – “you have spat one too many times and now I am calmly going to smack you”. That would be rather more cruel and calculated, like those of us called over to the teacher to receive the belt. No, smacking is done as a last resort, when all our other parenting techniques have failed. Ask nicely? Check. Positive reinforcement? Check. Withdraw treats? Check. Threaten future withdrawal of fun? Check. Rage, frustration and emotion building inside as you realise there’s only one option left. Essentially it’s a sign of frustration. You’re only smacking your child because you’ve failed to use you preferred parenting methods well.
You therefore cannot control how much you are hurting them.
Given that smacking is done in the heat of the moment when you are at your wits end, the suggestion that you can control the force is rather ludicrous. At that time of heightened emotion and distress you are literally lashing out as a last resort. How can you be capable of restraining yourself so that it ‘only hurts a bit’?
Parenting through fear is not the answer.
Smacking achieves the goal of getting the child do what you want, but that is not enough to justify it. Just as punching your husband might stop him from shouting at you, hitting your kid might stop him from running away in the supermarket. But the point is not the end result, it’s the means of how you live your life and build your relationship with your child. Teach them through a loving and nurturing relationship and not through fear or threats of pain or violence. The Triple P website has great positive parenting resources.
Violence breeds violence.
By teaching your child that it’s ok to hit to achieve your goal gives a very clear message. Do what you need to do to get your own way. It’s the classic tale of smacking your child for hitting someone in the playground. It will encourage them to do the same to their nearest and dearest as they grow up.
And the evidence backs this up (info from RACP statement).
- Experience of physical punishments – such as slapping or hitting – in childhood is associated with depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse/dependence, and personality disorders later in life.
- Experience of physical punishments in childhood is associated with a higher incidence of health conditions in adulthood, including cardiovascular disease, obesity and arthritis.
- Children who are spanked frequently at age three are more likely to be aggressive at age five.
- Physical punishment teaches kids to avoid the ‘bad behaviour’ in front of adults, rather than stop the behaviour completely.
- There is no evidence that physical punishment improves child development and health.
As doctors, we have a responsibility to protect children from harm. And that responsibility extends to our personal lives too.