Smacking/spanking/hitting your child

Alison Lees Parenting, Relationships May 17, 2017

I had the misfortune recently of witnessing a mother smacking/spanking/hitting her child at a communal children’s play area. The situation leading up to this event went as follows:

A little girl, who appeared to be younger than 2, was playing next to another child who was similar in age. Their mothers were chatting nearby while they played. The little girl turned to the child and hit him in the face. The reaction of the girl’s mother to this situation was immediate. She marched straight up to her daughter, bent over her, and smacked her on her arm while at the same time saying “We don’t hit people”.

The disconnect between this mother’s words and her actions astounded me. There are a number of sad parts to this story but possibly the saddest part is that no other caregiver in the playground seemed confused or affected by this mother’s words or actions. They all went about the situation as if this is how one raises a child: you reprimand your child for hitting someone by hitting your child. I am no stranger to the concept of parents smacking their children as a form of discipline in South Africa. It is unfortunately very common and it seems that a common attitude towards smacking is: “I was smacked as a child and I turned out fine so I will do the same to my child” or “How else will kids know they are doing something wrong?”. It seems that these parents are not critically and consciously reflecting on their own childhood experiences and aren’t able to consider alternative pathways to parenting. It’s also highly possible that they don’t have a good understanding of how their children’s brains work and therefore think that their children are deliberately acting out and are therefore in need of punishment. So, we at Attachment Foundation would like to address this situation by focusing on the following facts:

  • Your toddler’s/child’s “thinking” brain is immature and only fully develops in their early twenties.
  • Because of this, your toddler/child WILL act impulsively and WILL act out. Whether they have a tantrum, scream, cry, smack, hit, kick, push, whatever. These behaviours are NORMAL and EXPECTED. It doesn’t mean you are a bad parent and it doesn’t mean your child is acting out to deliberately embarrass, annoy, or shame you. Their behaviour is an invitation for you to help them. 
  • When your toddler’s/child’s thinking brain is disconnected, they need to “borrow” yours. This means you need to be emotionally regulated (cool, calm and collected) in order to help your child in their time of need.

Smacking your toddler for behaving impulsively is like smacking your toddler for blinking. Smacking your child for acting out is like smacking your child for asking for your help. We believe that if more parents knew this, they would think twice about the way they deal with their children’s behaviour. Unfortunately, very few people know this information!

What’s more, parents who are enlightened often feel judged by other members of society, particularly other parents, as their sensitive approach to their child’s poor behaviour is perceived as “doing nothing”. It is a constant battle for a parent with a young child to be around other parents who aren’t familiar with attachment theory and child neurodevelopment. If your child behaves in a way that is perceived as “naughty” or “vindictive” then there is an expectation of you as a parent to punish them, possibly even smack them. However, if you approach your child as being in need of help and connection, it appears to less enlightened parents as if you are doing nothing. There is a lot of pressure on parents to act as if you are sorting your child out and this then prevents parents from connecting to their children and assisting their children in developing optimally emotionally.

So what are alternative options to smacking/spanking/hitting your child? Read one of our recent posts covering practical steps to staying connected to your child while they are acting out. Another great resource for information on sensitively setting limits for your children in response to poor behaviour can be found here

We need to become “evangelists” for attachment theory and attachment informed-practice. So, share this post and as much information on attachment as possible. Let’s spread the good news!


Lana Murphy May 21, 2017 at 8:26 am

This is a great article and I agree with it wholeheartedly. The first section discussing how being hit as a child seemed okay and so let's repeat this behavior with our own children is truly something adults need to address. I myself was hit as a child and when I had children of my own I made a conscious decision to never resort to physical punishment in any way. I have used much of "super nanny's" approaches to discipline, time outs, restrictions of privileges and to say "sorry". My word, I have met more adults than I care to mention who have trouble saying that one little word! Could that in itself show that hitting your child simply doesn't work, that as an adult you cannot perceive that you have to apologize when you have hurt someone else? I have taught my children to accept when they have done something wrong, take responsibility for that action and apologize and make amends as best they can. My children are not perfect in any way, but I am thankful that they are honest, feel free to speak their minds, know that hard work pays off and laziness brings little if any rewards at all. I have no magical method besides loving them and helping them to become decent adults and good contributors to human society. My children are older now and beyond the "spanking" age, but I am very proud of them and I am proud to say that from a childhood of many "hidings" and bruises, I did not repeat the failings of my parents but learned from them. Thank you so much for this article, teaching awareness to parents and adults is so important for the next generation. Let's not repeat our forefathers mistakes, let's learn from them and become better people!!

alisonclairelees May 22, 2017 at 9:39 am

Thanks so much for sharing, Lana. We have no doubt that your reflection on your childhood and ability to critically engage with what children require from a parent has benefited your children. Keep up the good work and stay connected with us!

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