Is Smacking Smart?

We asked…the kids told:

“It’s naughty to smack” (4 year old boy)
“Only God is allowed to smack” (6 year old boy)
“It’s wacking someone. You do it when someone is being rude to you. But I never do that…no one should do it” (7 year old boy)

So why do we smack?

“Smacking is to warn other people for not being nice to you” (5 year old boy)
Sure, the role of a parent is to care for their child, to nurse and nurture them. What this (and indeed many) definitions of a parent neglect to mention is the emotional toll parenting can take when a child is whining, biting, hitting, screaming and/or kicking. Some days, being a parent is the hardest job in the world. It’s a lot of pressure. There is no ‘how to’ manual. It certainly isn’t an exact science. And still, what every definition of being a parent will tell you is that parents are children’s most important role models. What this means is that smacking (and shouting and screaming for that matter) are only effective in telling children that it’s okay to solve problems that way.
A lot of the time, smacking isn’t a first choice. It’s a last resort. Often parents who smack feel shame over it, and smacking occurs in secret. Other parents say ‘it works’, but what does that mean exactly? Sure, it stops the behaviour in the moment. But for how long? It may relieve a parent’s stress momentarily, and may even make them feel better. If we are being honest though, most of the time, smacking is an emotional response.
At best, a child is smacked to teach them a lesson that what they did was wrong (ironically, by using a method that often feels wrong), and at worst, a child is smacked because a parent is overwhelmed, upset, or angry. It might have short-term gains for parents, but it doesn’t actually teach children anything positive. In other words, ‘hitting children is a lesson in bad behaviour’. We now have research that shows us that children who are routinely smacked tend to have lower cognitive abilities as compared to children who are not smacked. These scary stats tell us that smacking is literally not smart.

The Scoop on Smacking:

“It humiliates children, especially in the supermarket and it hurts. I think that parents should punish their children by taking away their electronics and other stuff they like” (11 year old girl)

  1. Smacking doesn’t work. Smacking has two goals: to punish misbehavior and to increase the chances of good behaviour in the future. By definition, smacking can only achieve the first goal, because it is a punishment and only tells a child what not to do, rather than what to do. Children need to be shown how to behave in appropriate and acceptable ways; something smacking does not and cannot teach (Hineline & Rosales-Ruiz, 2012).
  2. Smacking makes things worse. The point of punishment is to stop misbehavior. Smacking has the complete opposite effect. A study of 3000 preschoolers found that increases in smacking by parents from ages 1 to 3 reliably predicted rises in children’s aggression from ages 3 to 5, showing that smacking is associated with increased aggression in children.
  3. Smacking hurts. Smacking hurts children, hurts parents, and hurts the parent-child relationship. We know now that children who are smacked have more behavioural and emotional problems. It is confusing for children to be smacked by their parents, and be told not to smack/hit/kick/bite others. Communication needs to replace coercion. We need to work together to teach children to speak and ‘use their words’, not smack.

For more information on the effects of smacking, see:
The underlying message is hard-hitting (pardon the pun) to hear; smacking is not smart. Even if we don’t always know what to do (trust me, nobody does!), we know what NOT to do. Here are some tips to help you in those harder, more stressful moments…

Strategies to stop smacking

“Smacking hurts a lot. If kids are naughty, parents should tell them and train them” (13 year old girl)
Strategies for the family (because we need to look at the big picture):

  1. Parents. Marital and financial issues are two of the most common stressors families’ experience. Taking time out for self-care is important. Helping you helps your child.
  2. Parent-child relationship. Sometimes, minor conflicts develop into major battles, and neither parent nor child knows how to end them. A simple starting point for change can be spending positive time together, doing things that you both enjoy.
  3. Child. Every child is unique but parents might notice patterns, such as that bad behaviour occurs in certain contexts, like when their child is tired. Adjustments in the environment can be a big help in diffusing difficult behaviour.

If I could give you just 3 tips (apart from ‘stop smacking’), they would be:

  1. Time In. Have time in, or ‘special time’ with your child. Playing with your child is an emotional investment for life. Let them play with you, their way, for 5 minutes a day. This produces a more positive parent-child relationship and better understanding when the need for disciplining arises.
  2. Consistency is Key. Consistent and expected responses from parents allow children to learn effectively what behaviour is required (and desired). This means praising the positive behaviours we want to see more of, and consistently ignoring, or providing consequences for the behaviours we want to see less of.
  3. And if it all gets too much? Time Out. Time out is a logical consequence that, when used correctly and consistently, takes emotion out of the equation. When a child is calmly given a time out, the parent breaks a cycle of escalating behaviour. This is an opportunity for both parents and children to calm down.

For more helpful strategies see:
If you’ve tried these strategies and they are not working, it may be that you need a helping hand.
Focus on what you want for your children, the person you want them to be, and the type of person you want them to remember you being. ‘Instead of raising children who turn out okay despite their childhood, let’s raise children who turn out to be extraordinary because of their childhood’ (L.R. Knost).


Children are Unbeatable! Alliance (2000). Moving on from smacking (p.22). NSPCC, London.
Durrant, J., & Ensom, R. (2012). Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 184(12), 1373-1377.
Eyberg,S.M., Calzada, E., Brinkmeyer, M., Querido, J., & Funderburk, B.W. (2003). In L. VandeCreek & T.L. Jackson (Eds.). Innovations in clinical practice: Focus on children and adolescents. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press.
Eyberg, S. M., & Funderburk, B. (2011). Parent–child interaction therapy protocol. Gainesville, FL: PCIT International.
Gershoff, E.T. (2013). Spanking and child development: we know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7(3), 133-137.
Hecker, L. L., & Sori, C. F. (2003). Helping parents use the time-out procedure. The Therapist’s Notebook for Children and Adolescents: Homework, Handouts, and Activities for Use in Psychotherapy, 342.
Hineline, P.N., & Rosales-Ruiz, J. (2012). Behavior in relation to aversive events: Punishment and negative reinforcement. In G.J. Madden, W.V., Dube, T., Hackenberg, G., Hanley, & K.A. Lattal (Eds.), APA handbook of behaviour analysis (pp. 483-512). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Lee, S. J., Altschul, I., & Gershoff, E. T. (2013). Does warmth moderate longitudinal associations between maternal spanking and child aggression in early childhood? Developmental psychology, 49(11), 2017.
Tidmarsh, L. (2000). If I shouldn’t spank, what should I do? Behavioural techniques for disciplining children. Canadian Family Physician, 46 (5), 1119-1123.