The England Children’s Commissioner Maggie Atkinson wants to outlaw smacking. This is great news but I can already hear the backlash from parents who feel it is their right to ‘discipline’ their children in this way, and also from those who are at a loss to know what else to do. What often happens is that children are given no clear boundaries on their behaviour until complete exasperation sets in and parents lash out.

Sometimes we take it for granted that children know how to behave in different situations, but they need to be taught, shown and encouraged – not just punished when they don’t get it right. So what might parents do to promote positive behaviour in the first place? And how do you deal with challenges when they occur without resorting to smacking? Here is a very brief summary of alternative ways of thinking and doing.

What smacking does to kids.

Every parent has been at their wits’ end at some time or another when they have said and done things they regret. Where children are living in predominantly loving homes the occasional outburst rarely damages children forever … but routinely smacking children or believing that this is appropriate parental behaviour is both disrespectful and has the following negative fallout:

  • It teaches children that violence is the way to get what they want
  • Children get into trouble in school when they copy their parents by hitting other kids
  • Hitting children makes them anxious when they are young and angry when they are older
  • When one smack doesn’t work, children might get hit again and harder
  • Adults can end up hurting children badly because they are bigger and stronger
  • Parents can destroy their relationship with their children by routinely smacking them – it is demeaning
  • Smacking does not teach children self-control – all the control is from the outside
  • Over time children learn to behave in ways they can get away with rather than choose positive behaviour because others matter and it’s the right thing to do.

What can you do to encourage more positive behaviour?

  • Regularly give attention and positive feedback for the behaviour you want so your child is clear about what you expect of them eg: thanks for, I like the way you …, I am proud of you for …
  • Help your child identify, grow and channel their strengths. In this way they will establish a positive self-concept to live up to. When children hear they are lazy, naughty or a nuisance they see themselves this way and behave accordingly. Words matter.
  • Engage your child in everyday conversation – ask their opinion about little things, treat them with respect – this establishes a positive relationship in which you being disappointed with their behaviour can be a powerful sanction. It will also make your child more willing to listen to you.
  • Children see, children do. Show your children how to behave – they will model themselves on you. If you scream and swear when things don’t go right, so will they.
  • Talk to your partner about what to expect from children as they grow. Where possible present a united front.
  • Have fun as a family

What can you do in a crisis?

  • Children (like the rest of us) are less in control when they are tired, ill, hungry, cold or scared – check if any of this is contributing to difficult behaviour
  • Tell your child what to do – this is easier than stopping doing something
  • Give brief and clear instructions – too many words confuse. eg come over here please
  • Give space to calm down – you won’t get to the ‘bottom’ of things when there is a high level of emotion – deal with the details later.
  • Try validating emotions so children feel ‘heard’ and don’t need to express their distress more loudly, eg: I am not surprised you are upset.
  • Make sure your child knows it is their behaviour you do not like – you love them but not how they are behaving.
  • Give minimum attention to tantrums – remove the child from company if possible.
  • When a child begins to calm down then offer comfort.

What about you?

You need to look after yourself in order to parent well. This means:

  • Having a support network – people who can share the load, help out, give you a hug, be encouraging.
  • Knowing where to go to for help and advice – it this isn’t friends and family do you have some phone numbers handy for parenting helplines?
  • Having enough sleep – none of us function well when exhausted. Talk to your doctor.
  • Find time just for you – even if its only ten minutes a day.
  • Enjoy being a parent; if you see the world through your child’s eyes everything will be shiny and new!

Kids need clear boundaries and to learn to consider others. Establishing expectations firmly but with kindness and encouragement will pay dividends many times over as children grow.

Sue Roffey is co-author of Alternatives to Smacking for NAPCAN (National Association for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect) in Australia.