Early in January 2012, the Minister For Children, announced that she was considering a law on banning smacking. How this would be implemented remains to be seen but is the minister right? Many parents are possibly panicking at the thought of a total ban on smacking being introduced in Ireland. Sure what’s wrong with the odd slap on the legs to stop your child misbehaving! From my own point of view, smacking is wrong and doesn’t teach your child how to behave – it simply hurts them and teaches them that it is okay to use physical violence to get what you want. Our parenting classes (based on the Parents Plus Programmes) place great emphasis on getting the balance right between positive parenting and discipline. Positive parenting is about spending quality time with your children, playing with them, reading stories, chatting and listening to them. This builds a strong a positive connection with them and shows that attention is given in a positive way and not simply when they misbehave. It is vital that parents set aside time and effort to give this positive attention to children.
Remember however, that there has to be a balance between positive parenting and discipline. Children need rules and boundaries to help them to behave well and to help them to feel safe. The key to our courses however is that discipline should be POSITIVE. Positive discipline is about teaching your child how to behave. Rather than simply giving out to or smacking your child, you should teach them the behaviour that you want. Don’t tell them what you don’t want – tell them and encourage them to behave in the way that you do want. Try changing some of your negative instructions to positive instructions. For example, instead of saying “don’t start fighting with each other today kids”, try “Why don’t you both find a game that you enjoy together and play that”. Imagine you got a new job and the list of instructions you were given where all negative – ‘don’t be late’, ‘don’t take too long for lunch’, ‘don’t spend all day on the internet’ and so on. It seems ridiculous I know as we are usually told what time to be at work, what time to take lunch and for how long, if internet access is allowed what is the acceptable time and so on. For our children it is the same – rather than giving them a list of what they shouldn’t do and expecting them to figure out what to do instead, we need to clearly explain what our rules are and teach them the behaviour that we want.
So what do I think of the minister’s proposal to ban smacking? I totally agree that children should not be slapped and that there are more positive ways to teach children how to behave. However, should the minister herself look at getting the balance right here too? Instead of telling parents ‘don’t smack your children’ (telling us what she doesn’t want) can this be reframed into what she wants us to do instead (teaching us what we should do)? That is where I feel there is an imbalance in the system. There are parenting courses available to help parents to learn skills and techniques to be the best parents possible but are there enough courses? Are they available to parents at a time and location that makes it easy for parents to access? Is there any funding to help parents to attend private classes if they cannot avail of free classes? The balance between telling parents what they can’t do (i.e. smack children) and telling parents what they can do instead (supporting parenting training) needs to be carefully managed.
Children need boundaries and rules, parents need support and training and our society needs to make this type of training widely available to parents. There is also another benefit of ensuring that parents get good support and training – intervening where the parents themselves may have been poorly parented can help to break the cycle of poor parenting leading to poor behaviour and could save the state millions in dealing with the problems of young offenders in society.
Yes, we should ban smacking of children – it is absolutely wrong and a child should never have to endure physical pain at the hands of a parent. However, the minister needs to give support and help to parents by teaching them what to do instead. Parenting classes should be available throughout the country and some support or tax relief should be available to help parents to attend these. There is no point in passing a bill without giving some support to parents on better ways to help to teach their children to behave well. If the bill is passed, then it must be accompanied by some support for parents to teach them how to parent in a way that encourages good behaviour from children using other approaches.