8 effective ways to discipline your child without smacking

As paediatricians call for a complete ban on smacking children, parenting experts tell Lisa Salmon how to control kids without using violence.

Lisa Salmon
Wednesday 17 April 2024 13:56 BST
Communicating consequences with your child is an effective form of discipline (Alamy/PA)
Communicating consequences with your child is an effective form of discipline (Alamy/PA)

Children’s doctors have called for a change in the law to ensure smacking a child is never seen as acceptable.

The current law in England and Northern Ireland has “grey areas” which can sometimes mean parents and carers have a defence for physically punishing children, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) says.

If a child is smacked, hit or slapped in England and Northern Ireland at the moment, parents can claim it was “reasonable punishment” and avoid breaking the law. The Children Act 2004 says it is currently only unlawful to assault a child causing actual or grievous bodily harm, or cruelty.

The law is different in Scotland and Wales though – Wales made any type of corporal punishment, including smacking, hitting, slapping and shaking, illegal in March 2022, while Scotland had already introduced a similar ban in November 2020.

“Currently, the law is clear that physical assault against another person is unacceptable – except for children, the smallest and most dependent members of our society, where the law allows a degree of violence in child-raising,” explains Bess Herbert, an advocacy specialist for End Corporal Punishment at the World Health Organisation.

She says the current law sends “a very confusing message”, and suggests to parents and carers that physical punishment must be OK, when it has no benefits at all. “Children must be protected from physical punishment, and parents and carers have a right to know that physical punishment will harm their children, and a right to be supported to adopt positive, non-violent discipline methods,” she stresses.

Joanna Barrett, associate head of policy at the NSPCC, says: “It has long been clear that physical punishment does not benefit children and does not effectively manage their behaviour.

“We know from Childline that physical punishment can impact a child’s mental and emotional health, and damage the relationship between parent and child. Parents have a range of methods open to them to manage their children’s behaviour, but violence against a child should not be one of them.”

And Matt Buttery, chief executive of the Triple P UK and Ireland parenting program, adds: “When it comes to managing challenging situations, having positive strategies to help in stressful situations is vital. Hitting or hurting a child physically or emotionally is never OK and parents need access to help, support and information about how to keep calm and parent positively.

“There are lots of practical ways to sort out unwanted behaviour using reasoning and simple consequences instead of smacking. These are not quick-fix alternatives – all these ideas take more time and effort, but they have lots of benefits.”

So, how can you discipline a child effectively without slapping them?

1. Try not to react in the heat of the moment

It’s not easy, of course, but reacting when your emotions are heightened or when your child is misbehaving, can be a time when parents lash out. “Avoid making rash decisions when you’re angry,” warns Barrett.

And Buttery adds: “Before reacting, ask yourself what’s behind your child’s mood or behaviour, and try to solve that problem.”

2. Communicate

Children need to understand why they shouldn’t misbehave, and parents need to explain this to them gently – and not during a flashpoint, but well before. Barrett says: “Talk to your child about the rewards and consequences of their behaviour, and do it before, rather than after.”

3. Listen to your child

As well as talking to your child about their behaviour, it’s important parents listen properly to them too, to try to understand how they’re feeling and why they’re behaving in a certain way. “Take time to really listen to what your child is saying, and explain to them what you’re feeling,” advises Barrett.

Buttery says children are still learning how to communicate their needs and feelings, and explains: “Everything they do or say is a communication, whether that’s joy, satisfaction, anger or disappointment.”

4. Be a role model

Children learn from their parents, so make sure they see you behaving in the right way yourself. “Be a role model and don’t do things that you wouldn’t want your children to do,” warns Barrett.

Buttery says: “Children learn by copying what their parents do – they’ll learn to be kind and gentle when that’s what they see. When children are smacked for poor behaviour but told things like ‘no fighting’ or ‘be kind’, they’ll be confused and will copy their parents’ actions, not their words.

“It can be hard for children to sort out what parents mean when actions don’t match words.”

5. Give lots of praise

Sometimes, parents can forget to praise good behaviour, especially when it’s only for little things like keeping quiet when you need them to, or sharing their toys. But Barrett stresses it’s important to “praise children whenever possible for all they do”.

And Buttery stresses: “In the long-term, it works much better to praise and encourage your child’s good behaviour than it does to punish the things you don’t want. Simply spending time with your child doing things you both enjoy has been shown to help children behave better.

“Praise and support takes more time and works a bit more slowly, but they’re much more fun, and build the loving relationships parents want.”

6. Reward good behaviour

As well as praise, rewarding good behaviour will encourage children to repeat the behaviour in future. “Reward positive behaviour, and consider asking what would be a good reward,” suggests Barrett.

7. Be realistic 

It’s unrealistic to expect your child to behave perfectly all the time, says Buttery. “Misbehaviour or a lack of cooperation is only a problem if it starts to occur often and is frequent enough to raise stresses in the family or get in the way of positive relationships. Acting quickly before problems escalate, and focusing attention on positive behaviour, will make a big difference.

“Your goal as a parent is to support your child to be as independent as befits their age and stage, and start to make decisions for themselves as early as possible, rather than to be in charge of everything yourself.”

8. Be consistent 

Being consistent yourself – even when you feel tired or annoyed – helps your child feel secure and that their world is predictable, says Buttery. “This means they’re more likely to abide by house rules and understand expectations when it comes to their behaviour.”

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