To smack or not to smack? That’s a question many parents ask themselves when it comes to disciplining their children. Some experts around the world believe it’s an outdated parenting practice that could lead to long-term negative impacts on children. Nearly fifty countries have banned domestic corporal punishment – but Australia isn’t one of them. Amy Chien-Yu Wang explores the issue.
Parenting expert Dr Justin Coulson is the proud father of six children. He says raising happy and confident children is about taking a non-violent approach. That means avoiding smacking or spanking altogether as a way of discipline.
“You can only bring your children up well without spanking or smacking. In fact research quite clearly tells us that the more we rely on hitting our children whether it's to teach them a lesson or because we are angry or a combination of the two, the more we do that and the more we rely on those punitive styles of parenting, the more likely that our children will have challenges later in their life.”
He argues corporal punishment not only damages the parent-child relationship but it can also have other negative impacts on the child.
“What happens is, years down the track those children will tend to be much more likely to have things like depression, or anxiety, or just poor coping mechanisms for stress. Perhaps another important thing to consider is that when we hit our children, what we are actually teaching them that power is an appropriate way to get what we want.”
Dr Coulson says many parents often confuse the idea of discipline with punishment.
“If you look at the definition of punishment in the dictionary, punishment is to hurt somebody because they've done something we don’t like and we hurt them by physically hurting them or we psychologically or emotionally hurt them or we take something away from them that’s important to them. It’s interesting that the definition of punishment is quite similar to bullying; it’s just that bullying has to take place over time. But the idea of discipline is quite different, it’s a punishment, the idea of discipline is that we teach our children good ways to act, we instruct, we guide them.”
University of Sunshine Coast Lecturer in Psychology Dr Rachael Sharman specialises in child development. She says there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to parenting and sometimes gentle smacking can be an effective measure when it comes to dealing with children who require strong parameters.
“In terms of very harsh, nasty brutal physical punishment, there’s absolutely no doubt that there are long term negative impacts of that but I think when most people, most Australians think of smacking or spanking their children, they are talking about, you know, the fairly light smack on the bum or the smack on the hand that’s heading towards the stove and you don’t want the child to burn themself. And really the research on that is at best mixed, and really the best studies I’ve seen suggest there really is no or very small negative outcome for that sort of everyday normal kind of smacking.”
Professor of Law at the University of Sydney Judy Cashmore says while it is not illegal for parents to impose physical punishment on their children in Australia, there does need to be clear guidelines to protect children from abuse.
“The problem with frustrated, angry parents is that they may not necessarily know they’ve gone too far but if there is a clear message that - A. You can’t use implements, you certainly can't use a closed fist, that you can’t hit children around the head or the neck would be a good place to start. At least that’ll give us consistency across Australia which we don’t currently have.”
New South Wales is the only state to have guidelines on what constitutes unreasonable chastisement. Professor Cashmore explains,“That means that it’s punishment as force that's applied to any part of the head or neck of the child, or any part in a way that's likely to cause harm that lasts more than a short period. You can see that that’s difficult because it doesn’t define what a short period is. It doesn’t define what harm is. It’s not easy to find out exactly where the boundary is between what might be seen as a smack or a spanking, or what then becomes unreasonable and when that becomes a child protection matter and when it might also alternatively move into the criminal sphere.”
Dr Justin Coulson insists any form of physical punishment on children should be banned in Australia.
“I wouldn't walk into a shopping center have you push in line and hit you. If I were to do that I’d end up in court. if I was to use the back of my hand across your shoulder I’d be charged with assault. If I did that in public to my wife or in private to my wife that would be called domestic violence, that would be called abuse. We seem to have that concept in Australia that it’s ok to hit other people if they are a quarter of our height and a fifth of our weight.”
Dr Rachael Sharman disagrees. She believes banning smacking won’t solve issues around child abuse.
“We’ve actually got some really serious child protection issues in this country and I’m always really disappointed that smacking keeps sort of coming back in the public attention when actually we’ve got some really serious problems we really need to talk about like domestic violence, sexual abuse, and alcohol problems in the home and yet this sort of minor issue like smacking keeps coming up over and over again. I sometimes wonder if it's an attempt to talk about the really difficult stuff that really matters because it's far too difficult, no-one’s got a solution.”
Professor Cashmore says sometimes law enforcement can help change social attitudes. Sweden was the first country to legislate against corporal punishment in 1979.
“We know that certainly the forms of physical punishment in those societies such as Scandinavian countries that it has sent a very clear message that it's clearly accepted in those societies that you do not hit children, that that’s not OK and those ideas are now firmly ingrained.”
Dr Coulson acknowledges parents can be confronted with challenging behaviours of their children. He says during such times, it is vital to remain calm and assess what could be the cause of concern.
“When we see the world through our children’s eyes we often see a very different picture to the one that we are seeing when we look at them through our eyes focused on our agenda and focused how they are being so inconvenient. Why are they challenging us? Is it because they are hungry? Is it because they are angry? Is it because they are lonely? Is it because they are tired? Is it because they are stressed? The more we can work with our children, the more likely it is they’ll have positive outcomes in life, higher levels of resistance, higher levels of self-worth.”
The United Nations has called for Australia to join over forty nations around the world in banning physical punishment of children. It’s also a position supported by paediatricians from the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.