Smacking ban debate raises painful issues for parents


Hard to conceive how State involvement would defuse minefield that is child discipline, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

CORPORAL PUNISHMENT in schools was made illegal in 1982. Although you hear occasional complaints about how school discipline has declined since, no one would seriously suggest reintroducing it.

Why then, the lukewarm response to the proposal to ban corporal punishment by parents? Perhaps it’s because virtually everyone over 40 has stories of leathers, canes and rulers and teachers who abused their power.

Most parents who smack consider that the occasional tap does no harm, and don’t see it as at all the same as the leather-wielding brigade. But will we eventually see it as completely unacceptable for any adult to hit a child? I have smacked my kids, although not very often and not very hard. It was usually because of a loss of control on my part. I’m not proud of it or defending it.

Before writing this article, I checked with my four kids how they felt about it now, and whether I could use their answers in print. Two of them are in their teens. They all felt it had done them no harm, but none of them felt it was right or good. One son said that it didn’t help matters, and that it seemed to imply that hitting was a way to solve problems.

My two girls went further. One said that it was humiliating and made her feel very hurt (not physically, but emotionally.) The other said it just made her feel really angry with the person who hit her. The youngest son said he hated it, but with remarkable honesty, that he preferred it to a day without video games.

It was chastening to hear. I had never felt good about smacking them in the first place, but this was confirmation of how pointless an exercise smacking children is. But if slapping doesn’t work, what does? We all know parents who wouldn’t dream of smacking, but who yell, use sarcasm or constant criticism, or just smile benignly while their children defy all boundaries. That must be as damaging as the odd smack.

Many parents substituted the “time-out” for a smack. Recently, other experts have begun to suggest it is unhelpful. I never used it, but I have heard parents talk about dragging a screaming child back again and again to the time-out spot.

Hardly conducive to happy parent-child relations. Some writers, like Susan Stiffleman, suggest that all that time-out teaches is that we are only interested in our children’s company when they are good.

Even those like myself who thought constant praise and encouragement were the answer have been given a metaphorical smack in the face. According to research by Dr Carol Dweck, constant praise actually undermines children’s resilience, and what works is praise for effort, not global praise for being smart, or beautiful, or a great kid.

Over-praised kids can’t cope with failure, are less resilient, and less likely to risk being wrong. They also believe being smart means they should not have to make any effort.

What about raising children’s self-esteem? A review of studies found high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement, reduce alcohol abuse or violence of any kind. The review’s author, Dr Roy Baumeister, called his conclusions the “biggest disappointment of my career.”

Perhaps the most interesting part for me of the discussion with my children concerned what worked for each of them. One son needs endless discussion, persuasion, and logical argument before he will change his behaviour. Once convinced of the rightness of it, he will adopt the desired behaviour.

Virtually all the parenting manuals suggest entering into long discussions with a child about discipline issues is counter-productive. What was I supposed to do with a child who once said having a discussion cut off was like depriving him of oxygen?

On the other hand, one of the others didn’t mind being disciplined, but needed to be given space to be by herself if she had “lost it” and behaved very badly. Not a parent-imposed time-out, but her own need. Unlike her brother, she described being forced to discuss something when she was emotionally charged as “torture”. If allowed to leave, she would come back calm quite quickly.

Another child needs hugs every day if she is to function, while her older sister despised hugs until she was nearly in her teens, and felt smothered by them. In short, they are all good kids, and all utterly different.

I don’t think smacking is ever a good idea, but I need persuasion that criminalising it helps. How would it be enforced? A mother who loses it once in a while with her toddler is not a child abuser, and should not be treated as such.

Smacking was banned in Sweden in 1975, without imposing criminal penalties, but the reality is that the penalty is intervention by the social services, and frequent removal of children. Swedes accept a level of intervention in families unthinkable in Ireland. Even the committee which monitors the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child expressed concern in May at the high number of children removed from their families.

For example, in June 2009, in a case where smacking was not an issue, Christer and Annie Johansson had their seven-year-old son, Domenic, forcibly removed by armed police from a plane. They were emigrating to India, Annie’s birthplace.

A court upheld the action, although the authorities acted without a warrant. The parents were only allowed to see Domenic once a week, then once every five weeks. The reason? The parents were home-schooling him, had not sent him to pre-school, had not had him fully vaccinated, and he had some untreated teeth cavities.

Although in Ireland, we are far more likely to encounter State neglect of children than such an excess of zeal, there are issues other than the criminalisation of smacking which would seem far more urgent. Perhaps we should all be encouraged first to learn what works with each individual child, to remember what it is like to be small and vulnerable, and to seek forgiveness when we inevitably fail sometimes.

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