The message hits home

Spare the rod and spoil the child? A good smack? British culture
is permeated with language and values that promote hitting
children. But attitudes like these are beginning to seem outmoded
and increasing numbers of parents no longer believe that smacking
is a good idea. Recent opinion polls indicate that the
anti-smackers now outnumber those who advocate physical punishment
of children. And yet most parents still admit to the occasional
smack. Alarmingly, three-quarters admit to smacking their babies
before they are a year old. So if parents think smacking is a bad
idea, why are they doing it?

Debbie Cowley, practice development manager at the Parenting
Education and Support Forum, believes that most parents smack when
they are at the end of their tether and don’t know what else
to do. “When you talk to parents about how they feel when they
smack their children, they mostly say they feel bad and out of
control. There isn’t much of a job to be done in persuading
them that it isn’t a good idea. People who smack frequently –
usually because they are really stressed – find after a while it
doesn’t even work. It becomes part of their relationship with
the child.”

Smacking often has more to do with how the parent is feeling at
the time than how the child has behaved. Research reveals that
mothers who are irritated for reasons which have nothing to do with
the child are very much more likely to inflict severe
punishments.1 Smith’s study also found factors
such as living in overcrowded accommodation, being a single parent
or having a low income do not in themselves make it more likely
that parents will hit their children while the quality of the
parents’ relationship and mental health strongly influence
the likelihood of children being hit.

It is not surprising then that parent educators find an
effective way of helping parents to stop smacking is to get them to
focus on ways of looking after themselves and building their own
inner resources. Part of this is about practical measures to give
themselves a break, but also involves reflecting on their own
attitudes which may be adding to their stress. For example, parents
often believe that they should be able to protect their children
from difficult experiences and uncomfortable emotions. But life
isn’t like that. Cowley explains: “When parents realise that
babies might be crying because they are expressing something they
need to express, they feel better. It isn’t always necessary
to stop the crying, but just to be for there for them.”

The next step is to look at relationships within the family and
to think about what it is like to be the child. Cowley says: “If
parents can look at things from the child’s point of view
it’s easier to see that children are behaving in a certain
way for a reason and not just to wind us up. Sometimes it really
feels like they are doing something just because they want to hurt
us, but there’s always a reason. The reason might be
developmental – they might want to be separate from us, or it might
be that they are feeling left out. When you stop taking everything
personally it’s a real breakthrough.”

Studies indicate that parenting education is an effective way of
getting parents to use more positive approaches to managing their
children’s behaviour. Groups work well because parents can
exchange information and experiences and support each other, often
after the formal group comes to an end. But not everyone wants to
go on a parenting course. Gill Keep, head of policy at the National
Family and Parenting Institute, says that providing parents with
basic information on child development and parenting, for example,
at key stages of transition like starting primary school and again
at starting secondary school, is helpful. She says: “We need to
think about how we can give information to parents without it being
stigmatising. There’s a strong message that parents
don’t want to be preached at. Only they know their own
families. They won’t access services if they feel they are
being judged.”

Keep adds: “It’s important that people know what the
evidence is about smacking. If people think it’s effective
they need to know that the research shows something different.”

Keep believes that focusing on smacking independently of what
else may be going on in a family may not convey a particularly
helpful message to parents. She says: “You don’t want to say
that smacking is ever a good idea. The issue becomes the smack
rather than the behaviour. But the evidence shows that the context
in which a smack is delivered is an important factor. It depends on
family relationships. If it’s a warm and loving family a
smack is not likely to do much harm.” She points out that the kinds
of methods usually advocated as an alternative to smacking can be
just as harmful, depending on the family context. “If you are a
family where you ignore the children anyway, time out and ignoring
bad behaviour are really damaging strategies. Our message is
‘look at the quality of relationships’.”

Cowley agrees that distinguishing smacking from other coercive
or abusive methods gives a confusing message. She says: “Smacking
is bad because it means children are experiencing a relationship
which is coercive. The way in which discipline is being delivered
is damaging to the relationship. We build our children’s
mental well-being through our relationships with them. But I
wouldn’t separate smacking from a lot of things, like yelling
at children how stupid and useless they are.”

Nevertheless the NSPCC believes their “no smacking” campaign is
playing an important role in changing attitudes to physical
punishment. And the evidence so far suggests it is working. An NOP
survey found that following the charity’s poster campaign, 79
per cent of parents said that they were more aware of the negative
effects of physical punishment, and 48 per cent said it had made
them think about how they discipline their children. Fifty-four per
cent now say that smacking a child aged between one and four is
cruel, compared with only 43 per cent in January 2002 before the
campaign was launched.

Sue Woolmore, policy officer for the NSPCC in the North East,
says that public education campaigns are crucial. “You need to see
the advice everywhere. We would like to see public education on
television, through soap opera storylines, in the doctor’s
surgery and on cereal packets, constantly reinforcing the message
that smacking doesn’t work and with practical advice for

But Woolmore would also like to see more support for parents to
help them stop smacking. She wants all professionals working with
children and families, including health visitors, doctors and
teachers, to reinforce the “no smacking” message. Early next year
the NSPCC will be publishing a leaflet providing practical advice
and research findings for professionals working with parents.

Woolmore acknowledges that professionals who have smacked their
own children may find it difficult to support other parents. Rather
than retreating from the debate, she says people need to come to
terms with their regrets. “We can empathise with the pressures
everyone’s under to smack. Chances are you’re exhausted
a lot of the time. And we have all been brought up in a society
that condones smacking and encourages people to think that
sometimes, as a last resort, it is the best way to teach right from

Woolmore adds: “It is a sensitive issue. The vital thing is not
to go in criticising. We need to help people to see that hitting
children doesn’t achieve what they want.”

1 C Henricson, A Grey,
Understanding Discipline: An Overview of Child Discipline
Practices and their Implications for Family Support
, research
cited is by Marjorie Smith, NFPI, 2001

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