We live in a society where violence is the norm. You just have to watch the news locally and internationally to see that the consequences of violence usually result in reactions based on fear, resentment and anger. Force has become the order of the day and yet it is rarely a lasting solution, often spiralling out of control.

On the parenting topic of instilling discipline in a child, when a parent spanks a child are they standing in their power or giving away their power?  What are the effects on a child? Are there other more effective strategies for disciplining children and why should we care?

Empower or disempower?

Ultimately, the idea behind parental discipline is to bring up a self-disciplined child who knows the difference between right and wrong and making good and bad choices.  We must empower our children to make the best choices for themselves moving forward and it starts in early childhood with a positive parenting strategy around discipline and boundary setting, rather than a reactive one.

One day, they will be adults in real life. In the workplace they will not always agree with their colleagues or employers, or like their behaviour or decisions, they will have a disagreement with a shop assistant, or may need to lay a complaint with a restaurant manager or their child’s school principal.  Lashing out and hitting another adult in such situations is not socially tolerated and could land them in a lot of trouble.  Resolving everyday problems and stresses with violence is not an option, no matter how frustrated you may feel. Parenting is no different.

Disciplining out of trust or fear?

Of course there are moments when children can drive you stark raving mad, and because we live in a highly pressurised, time-starved world we, ourselves, are often living on the edge and are close to being at the end of our tether. Kids can sometimes be the final straw in your day but beware – don’t take your frustrations out on your children. You need to keep perspective if you want to grow a parent-child relationship based on respect and trust and not disrespect and fear.

When we spank children we are role modelling that hitting and violence are an effective solution to conflict, boundary setting and behaviour modification. Before going any further, let’s be clear –  it’s one thing to give a young child a single firm smack together with a very firm “No!” or “Stop!” when they are in physical danger such as running across a busy road, touching a hot iron, or sticking their finger in an electrical socket, but it’s quite another to give a child a hiding – multiple smacks with the hand or a slipper, or strikes with a  belt, baton, wooden spoon or cane.

You might get an immediate result from hitting your child – it’s often the shock value that stops them in their tracks more than the physical act of hitting them, but that’s where it ends. Regular hidings often breed resentment, rebellion, shame and depression, according to the research, say nothing about teaching ineffective life skills and the guilt and remorse that parents often feel afterwards.

This is not to say that children shouldn’t experience consequences for unruly or disobedient behaviour, but there are other tools that can have better long-term results.

Parenting tips and skills for creating a self-disciplined child

  • The art of distractionis perhaps the most underutilised parenting tool. From the time you have a crawling child it is extremely useful.  Babies and toddlers explore their world physically, it’s how they learn, but they don’t know what is dangerous and so we must teach them by firmly saying, “No!” and simultaneously firmly tapping their hand away from danger – it just takes using one finger. Then pick them up and pop them down somewhere else and distract them with a toy or by rolling around on the floor with them.  You will have to do this hundreds of times in babyhood – children take time. You need to distract 3 to 5 year olds from the water feature in a restaurant by engaging them at the table, being interested, interesting and most important of all – being emotionally present and paying attention.
  • Be attentive. Children who feel invisible will find ways to get your attention even if it means using negative attention seeking behaviour such as getting into trouble – it is a sure-fire way to ensure they get your attention, even if it means getting shouted at or hit.
  • Read your children’s needs better. Are they seeking attention because of unmet needs?  Often children who are tired, hungry, thirsty, or in need of nurturing attention from a parent will play up and we often discipline them which doesn’t actually resolve the need.  Their behaviour then escalates and a parent without a strategy will find their own behaviour escalates to match, resulting in an adult tantrum which illustrates a loss of control. Anyone who has lived with a child has most probably had this experience at some time or another.  Don’t let it become your default setting.
  • Replace the word ‘punishment’ with the word ‘management’. Both parents and children need to learn how to manage their feelings and behaviour – this is called self-control and self-discipline and it is acquired by teaching children how to make good choices.  Bad choices result in consequences.  Before bad behaviour or poor choices are made by your child, ensure they know what the consequences will be.
  • Give children clear guidelinesregarding the consequences of their choices, allowing you to parent calmly and confidently, enabling you to respond to challenges as they arise. If they experience a consequence, it is not you who is punishing them by sending them to their room, it is their own choice of unacceptable behaviour which means they have chosen to go to their room, or not eat with the family, or not watch TV, etc.
  • Help children take responsibility for their choices, it is very different to enforcing a punishment. Next time your child screams: “You can’t make me!” you can take the wind out of the sails by calmly saying, “I don’t have to, it’s your choice. If you choose not to eat your dinner you choose not to watch TV and you choose to spend the rest of the evening in your room. Whichever choice you make is fine by me.  What do you choose?”
  • Be calm and consistent, they are essential elements of an effective parenting plan. If children know how to get you all worked up you have given away your power to them.
  • Follow through. Children need to experience the consequences of their choices. Don’t lecture, nag or threaten because then children will never know when you are being serious or not. Remember you are their parent and not their friend. It’s okay for them not to like you and to get mad with you from time-to-time. They always come round and get glad again.

Stand in your power by empowering them to make effective choices and, remember, they are watching, waiting and learning from your decisions.

Listen to my interview on spanking on PowerFM here.

For more practical 21st century parenting tips and wisdom, download my free e-book, Parenting Matters.