According to a 2013 Unicef report, approximately 6 out of 10 children worldwide between the ages of 2 and 14 are exposed to physical punishment by their caregivers.
Children are taught at an early age that violence is bad, yet their parents are often the first to contradict this message by resorting to physical punishment. What is odd is that we tell our kids not to hit others on the playground, yet when they fail to follow these rules some parents strike out, which can confuse the brain of a young child.
Smacking a child is a tired and careless approach. Children who grew up getting smacked are often the ones who have a harder time controlling their emotions and are often the ones who wind up creating trouble.
A parent could argue that such a form of discipline can have a positive outcome. Most parents have a defiant child who won’t listen to advice or ultimatums and a serious approach might be taken, such as a smack. Parents often describe this as their last resort, one driven by frustration and hopelessness.
In April 2016, the largest study ever conducted on the harm caused by smacking was published in the Journal of Family Psychology, involving feedback from more than 160,000 children over a period of five decades.
Elizabeth Gershoff and her co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor concluded that smacking has the reverse outcome to the one that parents hope for. In addition, the results of that type of discipline were manifested in anti-social behaviour and other mental health problems.
Prof Gershoff says: “We think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviours, yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”
Spur-of-the-moment punishment offers immediate gratification in terms of relieving bottled-up anger. Yet after a while guilt replaces anger, because most of the time, what the situation required was objectivity and a little bit of negotiation.
Many of us prefer to remember our parents as perfect creatures. That makes it hard to address issues such as the practices they may have used to discipline children and those which seep into our own behavioural patterns.
But previous generations weren’t as fortunate as we are to benefit from all the workshops, courses and counselling that are offered in our community (and online) in how to deal with a defiant child and parenting in general.
According to Prof Jay Belsky: “Spanking is more likely to be used by parents who are younger, less educated, of lower income, single, and/or are more depressed and stressed. Children that are defiant and have mental issues might be more likely to be spanked.” He also mentions in his study that “spanking is most commonly used by parents who were themselves spanked.”
Raising a child is the hardest task a person can ever undertake. There is no denying the hefty load of responsibility. Nevertheless, parents should understand that they don’t have to repeat the mistakes of their own childhood.
Whether you are a caregiver or soon to be one, changing the old ways of discipline and listening to what science and research have to say are the best way to raise a well-adjusted child.
Sara Al Hemeiri is an Emirati writer who lives in Abu Dhabi