Smacking children: what you need to know

Smacking is a physical punishment.

In the short term, smacking looks like it works because children stop what they’re doing when they get a smack. But smacking isn’t a good choice for discipline. That’s because in the long term it doesn’t help children learn about self-control or appropriate behaviour.

As a form of punishment, smacking has three other big drawbacks.

First, it can give children the message that hitting is OK – for example, children who are smacked can be more aggressive than children who aren’t smacked. When parents use physical punishment children are more likely to have challenging behaviour.

Second, there’s a risk that smacking might hurt your child. When parents use physical punishment like smacking, children are more likely to be seriously injured.

Third, most studies show that physical punishment like smacking leads to longer-term problems in children’s health and development.

There are more reliable ways to help children learn about behaviour.

What to do instead of smacking

When you use discipline that’s firm but fair, it helps children to grow and develop. Managing your own feelings is also an important part of creating a warm and loving family environment that supports your child’s development.

Here are some options for you to try.

Using negative consequences and punishment
Part of firm and fair discipline is setting limits on children’s behaviour. For preschoolers and school-age children this can include using negative consequences or punishment when children break rules or misbehave.

Negative consequences can include loss of privilege. For example, if your seven-year-old won’t close his iPad and come to dinner, he might lose the privilege of screen time after dinner. He’ll quickly realise that whether he gets screen time after dinner is up to him.

Punishment can include time-out. Time-out involves taking your child away from interesting activities and not giving your child attention for a short period of time. Like other negative consequences, time-out gives your child the chance to think about what happened and what she might do differently next time.

There are a few important things to remember with punishment and consequences:

  • Punishment works better if you combine it with positive strategies to encourage good behaviour.
  • Punishment and consequences are best used for children over three. Younger children don’t understand the connection between their actions and the outcomes of those actions.
  • It’s good to warn your child before you use a negative consequence or punishment. This gives your child a chance to change his behaviour.

Avoiding challenging behaviour
You might be able to avoid the need to use punishment by avoiding challenging behaviour.

One way to do this is by planning ahead for situations where your child tends to behave in challenging ways. For example, your two-year-old gets bored at the supermarket and won’t sit in the trolley. You could plan ways to keep her entertained. For example, get her to count the fruit as you choose it, or take your child’s favourite book for her to look at while she sits in the trolley.

Clear family rules can also help you avoid difficult behaviour from your child. That’s because family rules let your child know what the limits are, and what behaviour you expect. Just note that young children need your help to remember and follow the rules.

Managing frustration, anger and stress as a parent
When children behave in challenging ways, it can be really hard. It’s normal to feel frustrated, stressed and angry.

If you can manage your own angry or frustrated feelings in positive and healthy ways – for example, by staying calm, taking a few deep breaths or even walking away – you give your child a great example of how to behave.

On the other hand, if parents get angry and smack children, it can teach children that smacking is an OK way to deal with strong feelings.

If you find yourself getting stressed and angry a lot and you don’t know how to relieve your feelings, it might be worth looking into some stress management and anger management strategies.

And if you feel like smacking your baby or child, put your child in a safe place – for example, a cot – or ask someone else to hold him for a while. Take some time out until you feel calmer. Try going to another room to breathe deeply or calling a family member or friend to talk things through.

Most parents feel frustrated sometimes, but if you feel this way a lot, talk to your child and family health nurse or GP.

If you’re finding it hard to manage your child’s challenging behaviour, see your family GP or call a parenting hotline for support and advice.

Smacking: how children and parents feel

When parents smack a child, they’re often trying to say, ‘You’ve done the wrong thing – behaving that way isn’t OK’. But this isn’t the message children hear. A child who’s being smacked might think her parent is saying, ‘I’m angry with you and I don’t like you’.

Children mostly feel fear, anger and sadness when they’re smacked. They might also feel confused and lose trust in their parents. They usually can’t think about what they’ve done wrong or understand why they’re getting a smack.

Parents have a range of feelings about smacking, depending on their own backgrounds and beliefs.

Some think that smacking is OK as a way to discipline their child and to teach self-control. Others feel sad and angry that anyone would hit a child. Some parents might feel guilty and regretful if they’ve smacked their child. Other parents might feel defensive or judged if they use smacking as a way to discipline their children.

The kids are chucking a tantrum and the irony is you then nearly chuck an adult tantrum to try to control them.
– Jennifer, mother of Olivia and Ava

Smacking: expert debate

There’s clear evidence from over 20 years of research that physical punishment, like smacking, doesn’t improve children’s health and development. Physical punishment increases the risk of serious injury to children and can make children aggressive. It can lead to longer-term problems in children’s health and development.

There’s some debate about smacking because a small number of studies haven’t found problems with child development when parents used physical punishment. Some experts suggest that smacking probably isn’t harmful if it happens occasionally in a loving home. But most child health professionals recommend that parents use discipline strategies that don’t involve physical punishments like smacking.

Across the world there’s support for giving children the right to grow up with discipline that supports their health and development. Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child says ‘Children have the right to protection from violence, abuse and neglect, and from being hurt or mistreated, physically or mentally’. The Convention has been ratified by 191 out of 196 countries.