Could you hit your child?

Could you ever hit your child?

I should have been holding his hand but I wasn’t. He saw our car, parked on the other side, and ran to climb inside. He didn’t see the van crossing his path. It happened so fast. He ran, brakes screeched, I screamed, he stopped, bewildered. I slapped the back of his legs and then hugged him tight. His face crumpled in hurt and confusion.

I remember that moment years ago so clearly, and berate myself for it over and over again. I have never hit either of my children since, and yet toddler parent frustration often left me wondering what on earth I could do to make my point hit home.

According to a new poll,* more than half of parents believe that smacking is an effective form of discipline, and 35% admit that they smack their children. In some ways, I’m not surprised. My mother did it regularly. I have vivid memories of being taken down alleyways at the shops to get my legs slapped for some or other transgression. All the mums did it, as far as I knew, it’s just what you did. So when I did it to my son, I excused myself. It was heat of the moment, a short, sharp shock, to make him think; he’ll never run out in front of a car again. And he never has. Effective discipline.

And yet, my overriding memory of those alleyway slaps is one of humiliation. Not pain – just shame, and resentment. It doesn’t matter that there was no physical damage; it doesn’t matter that I was loved; it mattered that it hurt me emotionally, and I don’t want to do that to my children.

On the other hand, I regularly see parents not admonishing their children for appalling behaviour. I wonder if they’re saving it for the privacy of their own homes, to be dealt with later. After all, it’s nobody’s business but theirs how they raise their kids. But then these are so often the children who behave badly a lot of the time, and I know that in reality they’re not being given those boundaries by their parents, instead being left to believe that what they’re doing is fine. And where does that leave us as a society?

Horror stories in the news of children seriously harmed by their parents have led to an almost universal condemnation of the old-fashioned practice of smacking. There are laws and child protection services for a good reason. And yet, my mum would dismiss it as nonsense. Any decent human being knows where to draw the line, and a quick slap is not the same as bruising, or a broken arm. It’s PC gone mad, she’d say.

Is smacking illegal?

Under the Children Act 2004 it is unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment.’ But that’s where the problem lies – what one parent believes is reasonable would be totally unacceptable to another. The United Nations have historically urged the UK to ban all forms of corporal punishment. The UK government has indicated that it doesn’t wish to criminalise parents who “issue a mild smack,” but again, there is the issue of interpretation. And is there a resource to enforce such a law?

And then ultimately I come back to the humiliation.

So what do you do in those situations where anger and frustration get the better of you. How do you show a child, in the heat of the moment, that their behaviour is unacceptable? How do you make an impact that makes them think? I remember being dragged off my bike for a smack because I’d called my mother a liar. That needed dealing with, no question. But I’m stuck for an answer on the best way to make the point.

Maybe I should just send them to my mum. Apparently 8% of parents phone their own parents so the kids can get a telling off from Grandma!

How do you discipline your kids?

*Research conducted by 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

22 thoughts on “Could you hit your child?”

  1. This is a really interesting blog post. I definitely don’t agree with smacking but there the difficulty lies of what you can really do to send a genuine message to the child. I think the law is probably too vague on the subject and should be changed.

    • Yes, I started this post thinking it’s all about being a decent person, but the more I think about it, the more I think the law should be changed.

  2. I too was a child that was smacked and only remembers the emotional impact and vowed never to make the same decisions towards my own children.

    It is an interesting question as to how to shape the behaviour of our children, to make an impact, particularly in situations where they can’t foresee the outcome the way that we can.

    I grapple daily with the conundrum of how to persuade my 4 year old to do things without whining or complaint (like not shouting and waking her baby brother) or on my timings (aka getting to pre-school on time) without being heavy handed or the mum I don’t want to be.

    • Thanks Rachel. I think as parents these days we really try so hard to think about the emotional wellbeing of our children, in a very different way to previous generations. I know some older people who think I pander to my kids, when the opposite is true. I’m an incredibly tough taskmaster with them where behaviour and lifestyle are concerned. It’s just that I try so hard to do it differently. I’m not trying to keep them in line the way it used to be; I’m trying to teach them how to live a good life, with respect for themselves as much as others. That and I’m trying to enjoy making memories with them while I still can!

  3. Could I hit my child? I’ve been seconds away from it. I’ve literally walked away from it. I’ve shouted at her so hard she’s cried, in almost exactly the same situation you.

    I was also smacked and dragged forcibly and restrained, and, later on, as a teen, slapped by my mother. I would dearly love to avoid following in those footsteps. In fact, it’s a pretty big goal of mine.

    I work hard every day on learning coping strategies for my frustration and worries. I don’t want to take them out on my kids.

    And as a PR person, I think the survey you received is total balls and not representative of society as a whole.

    • oh and ps – this wasn’t supposed to be a slight on the way you handled your son, it honestly could’ve gone either way for me and I shocked myself by not doing what do you did!

      • I think, as Rose has said below, it’s an impulsive reaction to fear, shock or anger. Which doesn’t excuse it, rather it explains why it might happen. The more thoughtful amongst us might then, by feeling bad about it, consider how to respond to such emotions in a more practical, constructive fashion. Which can only be good.

    • Interesting. Yes it was a small survey, and probably not the most thorough, from reading the press release. It just suddenly sparked a couple of memories in me, and I wondered really how other people feel about it these days, when it was such common practice in the past.

  4. I’m from Norway living in the UK and in Norway any type of smacking or corporal punishment is illegal. I’ve never been smacked and I’ve never smacked my kids because it is so deep in me that it is illegal.
    I think it makes it easier. It forces me as a parent to find and choose other methodes to discipline my children, because smacking is NOT an option.
    I must admite that I struggle when I see parents smacking their children in the shops or in the playground. I sometimes think that because the option is still there, many parents still choose it as an “easy way out” instead of finding different solutions.

    Just a thought!

    • That’s really interesting Rose. The more I think about it, the more I wonder why physical punishment is even tacitly tolerated, given the fine line between punishment and abuse. I think you’re right, for most people, knowing it was illegal might make them think hard about how they discipline rather than resorting to a knee-jerk reaction which, let’s face it, is basically anger. It would also take away the blurred interpretations and decision making that has to be done by social services with regards to the law. Whether it would prevent more serious abusers is doubtful, in my opinion, the two are separate actions. But it would remove that element of defense. Thanks for contributing.

  5. I did the ‘incredible years’ training last year and just this week completed a really intense 3 days of group leader training for incredible years and it has totally reinforced just how pointless smacking is. Instead the focus should be on building up the relationship with your child in positive ways – being there to play with them and having that as a big foundation for behaviour – as through play they can learn the emotional and social skills they need. Combined with oodles of praise for positive behaviour, rewards and incentives. Having this in place with clear limits and clear instructions then reduces the need for other forms of discipline. Time out (to calm down rather than punishment) and consequences is the final pat of it to be used sparingly. It was really fascinating and it has been a tried and tested method over many years. Smacking only role models smacking as a solution which of course it isn’t.

    • Very good point, and actually, time out is a useful strategy for adults I think, as well as children. Rather than a punishment it should probably be seen as time to calm down so that you can think straight about what happened, and how best to handle it. I have used consequences a lot over the years – 123 Magic worked very well for me for a long time. We now have a good situation, where usually we can talk things through and understand each other. But the toddler years are so difficult sometimes, I can see why parents resort to tactics they later regret. And why some parents back off and avoid the confrontation, though I think that is just as damaging over the long term.

  6. You see I don’t see the difference really between shouting in a child’s face and smacking them. I’ve done both. I’m actually more ashamed of the former. I think both are equally damaging. I’ve been at points in my younger parenting days, when I would try anything as a form of discipline. I think most of us have probably done or tried something that could be deemed as ‘damaging’. I learnt quite early on that a short sharp smack didn’t really have much affect. I was smacked as a child (not hit) and I don’t believe it did me any harm. If someone chooses smacking as a form of punishment, not done in anger but in order to discipline, then I’m not here to judge. If it works for them then fine. I know plenty of people who do advocate a short sharp smack when required.

    • PS Some people would say that the naughty step is ‘damaging’ for children. I think it depends on the motive and the situation. Everyone has a different opinion and different children. Times have definitely changed now. We are taught different ways to parent. I don’t think our parents were and actually, I’m not sure that we were 16 years ago.

      • Actually, I agree with that. ‘Parenting’ has become such a big thing in this generation, with all the books, and so-called experts. I don’t think that was the case in our own parents’ generation. And there are definitely different styles for different children. I stopped using the naughty step very quickly when my daughter made it very clear that she would punish me for it by weeing on it every time I put her there! I know of one child who regularly put herself on the naughty step – it was so funny, and nothing to do with her behaviour. And the thing that most haunts me about my daughter’s diabetes diagnosis was that just before we went to the GP I had yelled in her face so hard that both my children ended up in floods of tears. They were winding each other up so badly and had been doing it all summer holiday and I was at the end of my tether. I don’t think I’ve ever really shouted since.

  7. There isn’t a perfect way to discipline kids. I was smacked as a child and i remember understanding why. Sometimes you would weigh up the risk of being smacked against the fun of being naughty!! My two kids respond to a TV ban or favourite toy ban best. Kids are all different and it takes time to find out what works for your family. I have noticed at playgroups etc it tends to be the grandparents that smack nowadays.

  8. I was once punished by getting smacked by a stick on my bum for something that I dont remember doing. I love my mother but that incident which happened when I was a kid is still fresh on my head. This is why I wont do it. I dont want my son to remember that than the best moments we had.

    I am trying my best to just talk to my son. If I am mad I told him that to give me a few minutes to think and be silent and then afterwards we will talk. No smacking on this house.

    • I think a bit of time out to calm down before dealing with it is probably one of the best strategies. I would be helpful in most adult arguments too!

  9. I think it’s good that we’re now in an era where smacking is much less acceptable than it was for previous generations. It really is dinosaur parenting and belongs in the past. We have so many more options as parents now and ultimately I think we can see that smacking does no good. Even the fact that you are questioning your actions and opening them up for debate here is a step forward – if this had been the 70s or 80s then it would’ve been pretty normal for you to smack your son and think no more about it.

    So good for you for talking about it Helen, it’s an important debate to have.

    • I’m sure you’re right Joanne, people just didn’t think about what they were doing as it was the norm. I know my parent’s generation things we overthink our parenting these days, and in some ways they’re probably right; certainly I worry much more than I should about my parenting skills. But I’m glad that we question ourselves and others – it’s the best way to learn what works well, and what doesn’t.

  10. Very interesting Helen, It wouldn’t enter my head to smack the boys, but thinking back it was acceptable when we were little, discipline is so hard isn’t it? I think we just have an accepted level in our house like most homes, but they are kids and not perfect. But naughty kids drive me mad I cant bear it, we actually stopped seeing one of our friends before her children were so naughty and we felt we were always nagging at our 2 and their children would look you in the eye and be naughty and they never said a thing. And whilst I am not one to judge others parenting spending time with them was unbearable, so there clearly has to be a level of respect and good behaviour xx

    • Phew! I thought it was just me being intolerant! I cannot stand being around kids who are allowed to do whatever they want – it drives me crazy, especially when my own children have fairly strong boundaries. I suppose part of the problem is that my boundaries are not the same as everyone else’s. I’m sure I’m judged by some people for allowing some of the things I do with my kids, but then I’m stricter on other things. It’s a minefield!


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