Over 20 years ago, my family and I took part in a documentary for the BBC hosted by Kriss Akabusi called, ‘Do you want a smack?’ We had to film everyday situations familiar to all families such as getting ready for school or bedtime. There was a scripted ‘wrong way’ version and a scripted ‘right way version’. Whilst I accept that the scripts were a bit contrived, I do think that the message the series set out – that there is always a more productive alternative to smacking – was very helpful to young parents.
Over two decades later and I can’t believe this is still even a debatable question!
Earlier this year, education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi rejected a call for a ban on smacking in the UK. Scotland and Wales have already banned it, as have 63 countries around the world, including France, Japan, Germany, New Zealand, Germany and Spain.
His reasoning was that parents ‘should be trusted’ on whether or not to smack their children, also admitting that his wife has occasionally given their own child a ‘light smack’ on the arm.
If it is illegal and morally unacceptable to strike another adult then why is it still acceptable to smack a child?
“It never did me any harm!” is often a cliched argument used by defenders of the smack, but aside from being morally questionable, there is mounting evidence that smacking DOES cause lasting psychological damage to children.
Various behaviour management and positive handling courses, over the years, have emphasised the damaging impact of being humiliated. Apparently, the loss of status we, (children or adults), experience when we are humiliated, is akin to death in the amount of ‘fear chemicals’ that the brain releases when we are in this state. Causing children to feel this way, even temporarily, has many other consequent impacts.
The human brain responds better and learns more readily when we feel safe, secure and respected. Studies have shown that young children living with persistent anxiety and fear can have their learning impaired, which can then later affect their performance in school, in the workplace and in their community.
When children are stressed or anxious the brain releases the hormone, cortisol. At high levels, cortisol is poisonous to the body, and the brain, leading to heightened inflammation, weakening the immune system and even changing the structure of the brain.
Recent research has shown that smacking alters children’s brain response in ways similar to severe maltreatment and increases their general perception of threats.
Researchers at the University of Texas evaluated 75 published studies and found that smacking was associated with 13 negative outcomes in later life including increased aggression, behavioural and mental health problems, reduced cognitive ability and lower self-esteem.
Much of our subconscious brain and worldview is shaped between 0-5 years old. Since 90% of our behaviour as an adult is governed by our subconscious brain, it’s no wonder that what we experience as a child has a lifelong impact.
If you teach a child that hitting is an acceptable form of punishment, then it should come as no surprise if they carry this forward and hit people themselves, as a child or as an adult.
If you only ever use smacking when you’re angry and frustrated it also teaches the child a lesson that physical aggression is an OK way to deal with strong feelings.
Aside from the immediate and long term impacts of smacking children, it’s important to realise that smacking doesn’t work to change behaviour.
Acute shame experiences, like smacking, can trigger immediate physical changes associated with a fear response which actually stops you from being able to think or reason at all.
This “shame attack” triggers an automatic stress response which makes your prefrontal cortex (which controls logical thinking), less functional. This ‘emotional hijacking’ also prompts a physiological urge for self-protection - a physical need to shrink away and become invisible. According to Gerald Fishkin, a California-based psychologist and author of The Science of Shame: “Shame isn’t associated with cognition at all. At the precise moment that shame is triggered, we are emotionally hijacked, and there’s no prefrontal activity,”
So not only does shaming your child negatively affect their self-esteem, but it’s also unlikely to make them learn or change their behaviour!
Those of the “a quick smack never did me any harm” brigade - particularly Nadhim Zahawi – ponder on these facts before advocating harm to our children.