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Friday, May 18, 2012

To smack or not to smack? A psychologist weighs in.

Did you watch the '60 Minutes' Australia report on smacking?

It has been the buzz since Sunday and it certainly made for uncomfortable viewing.

And here is the first part of the 60 Minutes story transcript:

MICHAEL USHER: To smack or not to smack? It's an issue that goes to the heart of parenting and there doesn't seem to be middle ground. You either believe that smacking is good, old-fashioned discipline or you consider it a form of child abuse. Dozens have banned it. Now there is a big push to do this here – that's despite the fact most Australians think an occasional slap is okay. Still, very few will admit to it, let alone smack their kids publicly – like one mother you are about to meet.

ANN: Look at me, I'm not joking. This is not funny, OK? Not funny at all. Do you understand?

MICHAEL USHER: Mother of four, Ann Shepherd, is dishing out what she calls “tough love”. She smacks her children when they are not behaving. Usually a short, sharp whack to the back side.

ANN: A slap can go straight to the point very quickly and it can get very quick results – for me, anyway.

MICHAEL USHER: Ann hasn't been caught out on camera, more embarrassed to admitting she smacks – in fact, the opposite. She's an advocate of smacking and allowed us to capture these very real, if not confronting, moments on cameras installed in her home.

ANN: That's for you. Smack for you.

MICHAEL USHER: Watching some of the vision of old-fashioned discipline for all her children. How do you feel when you smack them?

ANN: I don't feel guilty about doing it but I'm a human being. I'm a mother above all, and yeah, it does affect me. However, I know that in the long run I'm doing the right thing, because it will help them to become better adults, really.

I interviewed Lyn Worsley, psychologist at The Resilience Centre [see:] on the topic.

"We really need to learn methods that help children to self-discipline, and if your only form of discipline is to smack and shock them, then basically you’re what you're doing is a very behaviour-centric response to discipline.

"It’s like you’re giving dogs an electric shock when they don’t go through the right door.

"And really, in terms of raising children, what we need to do is look at how to help children to have a sense of their own self-discipline or self-awareness.

"So, raising children isn’t about managing them so they behave; it’s about giving them the tools so they know how to behave at the right time and place.

Adds Lyn: "If you use smacking in the context of, say, stopping a child from running out onto the road in front of traffic, that’s often a shock response to stop them from doing that, and sometimes I think that’s called for. But it shouldn’t be what you use as your main method of discipline.

"A child learning self-discipline needs to someone to talk to them very sternly when they’re misbehaving; they need to know that when they see mum or dad get angry, then the behaviour they are doing is wrong, that it’s socially unacceptable, and the only way to tell them that is by disciplining them. 

"When you smack them, then you’re not really teaching them discipline; you’re teaching them ‘you can express anger by hitting, and this is how I’m expressing anger at you.'"

So, do kids learn to 'respect' their parents because they get smacked, or do they grow up resenting them?

"I actually think that children know the context of their smacks. So, they know when they’re being smacked because they've done something wrong, like the traffic situation, and they know when their parents have lost control of the situation, too. Children know when their parent has hit them in a way that is to enable them to remain safe."

So, what of the argument people use "look, I was smacked as a child and there’s nothing wrong with me so therefore I will smack my children"?

Says Lyn, "What’s happened here is that they don’t have memories of it being abuse; they don’t have memories of it being a power imbalance.

"And certainly, you can smack a child without that power imbalance, but it’s less and less acceptable these days, so you don’t see it in our white western society without it being coupled with anger.

"The big problem is, if you start saying to people, you’re not allowed to smack, but you don’t replace that with another behaviour they can do to discipline the child, then you end up with children that are out of control.

"That don’t have any restraints put around them… they need to have boundaries where they know, 'oh, I can't go there or do that, or I’ll be in trouble.'

"A parent needs to have a means where they can say, 'I am the parent, I am I control of you, I am in charge of you, but I'm not going to use this power over you in order to discipline you. I'm going to make sure I have a sense of control until you're old enough to have control over yourself.'

"Regarding the woman in the 60 Minutes story, she can’t use the argument that smacking works.

"Once you have a child who is living with a sense of fear, you then have a real power imbalance… if we really want to raise children in an ideal world, you’ll raise them in a way that they understand that someone has control over them but not power. It’s a really fine line.

Let's use a real life scenario, one that's likely happened in every home with more than one child: one pushes the other, the other is hurt and comes to you screaming, and you give him a smack on the bottom to help them understand what they did was wrong.

Is that okay?

"I think the child will know the context of why you were giving them a smack. He would know that they did something wrong. But if smacked your child out of anger, then he’ll also know that, and would soon copy that.

"Unless you can guarantee that you can smack without any anger, then that smack should not happen.

"In dog training, when a dog does something wrong, you tap them on the nose and look them in the eye. You don’t do that with anger, you do that for them to learn the 'right way.'

"It’s the same with a child – if a child pulls your hair, often a parent will grab their hand and smack their hand and you say, 'don't do that.'"

What does Lyn think about legislating smacking?

"It has been done in a few other countries, and when they did that there was a bit of an uproar, but at the same time it made people think about the alternative way to teach discipline to their children. And so courses are offered where they can learn different disciplining skills.

"Of course, we have courses here and parents would do well to look into them. If we are going to legislate, we have to give parents an alternative.

You just can’t 'take something away', and not replace it with anything, otherwise you’ll have parents that are so disempowered, they won’t know what to do."

What is your approach to disciplining your children? What works for you?

To contact Lyn Worsley, go here: or call (+61 2) 9874 9711 or 9869 0377 (Epping, Sydney).

You can also 'like' the Resilience Centre on Facebook here:

About Lyn Worsley: Lyn is a Clinical Psychologist with a background in nursing, youth work, early childhood and tertiary education teaching. Lyn has experience working in prisons, hospitals an

into the development of resilience has a refreshing, multidisciplinary approach which has long been missing in past resilience research. Learn more about The Resilience Doughnut here:


  1. Totally wrong. Teaches you to fear your parents and that violence is acceptable. It's not. Parents need to grow up and teach them to be accountable for their actions by taking away privileges etc. That would have worked better for me. Instead I got the 'old fashioned way' too, and ended up fearing/resenting the parent. Cowards way out I think.

  2. Good work but I am not fully satisfy from it. From psychological way it seems right. If from a parents way many people will like and most of those will also ignore it.
    Psychologist in Australia | Children Psychologist

  3. I would like to say thanks for your sharing this useful information. Nice post keep it up. Hope to see you next post again soon.
    With Regards,
    Clinical Psychologist | Clinical Psychologist in Sydney