Corporal punishment: what it is and why it’s harmful to children
Corporal or physical punishment means using physical pain to change or control behaviour. For example, it might involve:
- smacking children
- hitting children with objects like spoons or belts
- pushing, pinching, shaking or dragging children
- pulling children’s hair.
Corporal punishment harms children. It can:
- cause physical injuries
- make it harder for children to learn and develop well
- damage children’s relationships with their parents or carers
- teach children to use violence in their relationships with others.
Even mild physical punishment isn’t safe for children.
Corporal punishment isn’t safe for children because sometimes parents end up using increasingly severe punishment when what they’re already doing isn’t working. This can lead to child abuse.
Corporal punishment including smacking: why it doesn’t work as a response to behaviour
Children might quickly stop what they’re doing when they’re smacked. But corporal punishment doesn’t help them behave well over the long term. That’s because it doesn’t help children learn to:
- manage their emotions in safe ways – for example, to recognise when they’re getting frustrated and decide how to respond to that emotion
- behave appropriately – for example, to understand that yelling is OK when you’re playing in the park but probably not OK inside when other people are around
- react more positively – for example, to admit to mistakes and ask for help, rather than trying to hide mistakes.
In fact, corporal punishment including smacking can accidentally encourage behaviour or make it worse. That’s because smacking is a form of attention. It’s also a strong emotional response and often involves close physical contact. Children need attention and are more likely to behave in ways that get attention, even if it’s unpleasant attention.
Children’s learning and development: harm caused by corporal punishment including smacking
It’s best for children’s learning and development if they can choose to behave positively because it’s good for them and others, not because they’re afraid of being physically hurt.
But corporal punishment including smacking makes it harder for children to learn and develop well.
For example, it can make children angry, anxious and less likely to listen to parents. Also, if children get smacked for lying, they might try not to get caught lying in future. But they might not learn that lying hurts other people or makes it hard for other people to trust them.
You play an important role in guiding your child’s behaviour by giving them positive attention when they’re behaving in positive ways. This reinforces children’s positive behaviour and makes them more likely to repeat it.
Children’s relationships: harm caused by corporal punishment including smacking
Corporal punishment can harm parents’ relationships with their children. This happens for several reasons.
Children don’t always understand why they’re being smacked. Instead, they might feel confusion, fear, anger, shame and sadness. These feelings can cause children to lose trust and confidence in their parents.
Corporal punishment can also send a harmful message to children about how their parents feel about them. When parents smack children, they’re often trying to say, ‘You’ve done the wrong thing – behaving that way isn’t OK’. But children might think their parents are really saying, ‘I’m angry with you and I don’t like you’.
And when parents use corporal punishment, the time that families share together can feel stressful and negative for children. Children might fear that they’ll be punished again and avoid spending time with their parents as a result.
Finally, children learn about all relationships from the interactions they have with their parents and carers. When parents and carers use corporal punishment including smacking, children might grow up believing that violence is normal in relationships.
Spending time with your child playing, reading or chatting helps you build a close and loving relationship. Your child’s relationship with you shapes the way they see the world and affects all areas of your child’s development.
How to support children’s behaviour, relationships and development without corporal punishment
There are many ways to guide children towards appropriate behaviour, help children learn and develop well, and build children’s relationships.
Here are ideas that don’t involve corporal punishment or smacking:
- Help your child learn to cooperate with others and follow instructions.
- Help your child learn to understand their emotions.
- Make it easy for your child to change from one activity to another.
- Help your child develop independence and learn skills to do the things they need or want to do.
- Use family rules and discussions to help your children understand what behaviour is acceptable in your family.
- Be a role model. Children do as you do.
- Prepare for difficult situations like shopping trips, having visitors or crossing busy roads.
- Understand that children might not behave well if they’re hungry, tired or unwell.
Raising children as a team is good for your child. It’s also good for you and your child’s other parent, even if you’re separated. Parenting teamwork includes agreeing on what you’ll do if your child behaves in ways that might hurt themselves or other people.
How to handle challenging behaviour without corporal punishment
There will be times when children behave in ways that you find challenging.
Here are strategies for those challenging times. It’s best to use these strategies calmly and immediately after the behaviour:
- As soon as the behaviour happens, give instructions that are calm, clear and age appropriate. It’s also a good idea to tell your child what you’d like them to do instead. For example, ‘No hitting. Spades are for digging’.
- Show your child how to manage emotions in stressful situations. This means speaking slowly without raising your voice and keeping your body relaxed. If you stay calm, it helps your child calm down and listen to what you’re saying.
- Acknowledge the feelings behind your child’s behaviour. For example ‘I know you’re upset because Taito took your truck. But that doesn’t mean you can hit him’.
- Use consequences like time out or quiet time or loss of privilege to help your child learn to avoid behaviour that isn’t OK. Note that consequences aren’t recommended for children under 3 years, and loss of privilege isn’t recommended for children under 6 years.
When your child misbehaves, deal with the behaviour and then start afresh. Avoid reminding your child what they did wrong. Instead, try to watch for times when your child tries their best – for example, when your child remembers to wait their turn or unloads the dishwasher without being reminded. Then give your child praise and positive attention like smiles, hugs or time playing a game together.
Managing your own emotions when children behave in challenging ways
Here are ideas that can help if you find it difficult to manage your own emotions when your child behaves in challenging ways:
- Think about what works for you in other areas of your life. For example, how do you stay calm at work or when you disagree with a friend? Try using these strategies when you find your child’s behaviour challenging.
- Use positive self-talk that helps you stay calm and respond positively. For example, you could say to yourself, ‘She’s still learning to manage her frustration’ or ‘Here’s an opportunity for me to practise new strategies’.
- Take some time away from the situation, if it’s safe to do so. For example, if your child is safe by themselves in the room they’re in, walk into another room. Or you could ask your partner or a friend to take over for a while.
- Be aware of situations that are difficult for you – for example, when your child shouts ‘No!’ Understanding and recognising these situations can help you take a few moments to decide how you’re going to respond.
What to do if you use corporal punishment including smacking
Sometimes parents use corporal punishment because they’re frustrated with children’s behaviour and they struggle to control their own emotions and behaviour.
If this happens for you, it’s good to acknowledge your mistakes to your child. Acknowledging and apologising shows your child how to behave. This might involve a simple statement about the behaviour and the reason for it. For example, ‘It was wrong of me to smack you and shout. I was feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. I’m sorry’.
It’s never too late to start saying and doing things to repair and improve your relationship with your child.
All parents have regrets about their behaviour towards their children. It’s important to be kind to yourself when this happens. This can help you feel less stressed and anxious, so that you’re better able to give your child what they need to learn, develop and build positive relationships with others.
Getting help for corporal punishment including smacking
If you think you might hurt your child, you have many support options. These include doctors, psychologists, counsellors, social workers and hotline operators.
It’s also a good idea to seek help if you: