According to an expert in psychology and child development, the link between smacking naughty children and aggression in adults is a tenuous one. However, parents should also be aware that corporal punishment is not an effective discipline strategy and that research suggests spanking can lead to other problems in adulthood.
The former chief justice of the Family Court, Alastair Nicholson, has called for smacking to be outlawed amid concerns spanking children could be linked to increasing rates of violence and bullying.
“If a child’s parents treat him or her abusively and violently, then it is not surprising that the child will also see this conduct as appropriate,” Mr Nicholson said. “In my view, the only way we are likely to break this cycle is to stress from the earliest possible stage that violence is not a solution to anything.”
But according to the expert on psychology and child development I spoke to, the link between corporal punishment and aggression in adults is a tenuous one. Associate Professor Dr Kerry Hempenstall at RMIT told Australian Women Online, “There is a case to be made that corporal punishment can lead to those sorts of outcomes. But the problem from a research prospective is you can’t be absolutely sure that it was the smacking that did it.”
“This is not an argument for smacking, merely to say that the research isn’t absolute in it’s condemnation of smacking,” he said.
Although research hasn’t been able to establish a direct causal link between smacking as a discipline strategy and aggression in adults, Dr Hempenstall recommends that parents avoid using corporal punishment.
Firstly, the research suggests corporal punishment is not an effective discipline strategy. “The only benefit that has been associated with smacking is short term compliance. The problem is that there is no long term compliance, that is, the thing the child did that led to the smack is just as likely to reoccur,” he said.
Secondly, the research indicates there can be other long term consequences for the child a part from those mentioned by Alastair Nicholson in the news.com.au article.
Dr Hempenstall says the long term effects of corporal punishment do not always manifest as aggression in adults. Children who are regularly spanked can develop problems with low self-esteem, depression, and maintaining healthy relationships in adulthood.
The likely impact of corporal punishment also depends on the context in which the occasional smack is delivered. Although the psychologist doesn’t condone corporal punishment, Dr Hempenstall believes the occasional smack delivered with an explanation by a loving parent, is unlikely to result in the sorts of anti-social behaviours described by the former chief justice.
Of course, the risks of developing anti-social behaviours in adulthood rises significantly when corporal punishment crosses the line into what constitutes physical abuse and it is this issue which is of primary concern for the former chief justice and his colleagues at the Family Court.
The news article where Alastair Nicholson’s comments appear says “Almost 70 per cent of parents, many of whom were hit as children, believe spanking is acceptable discipline.” So if this figure is accurate and if the outcomes described by the former chief justice were inevitable, we would expect to see more aggressive behaviours in adults than is currently the case.
Dr Hempenstall provides a possible explanation for this anomaly. Firstly, there are a range of factors which contribute to the psychological make-up of a person. Secondly, some children are just more resilient than others and have the ability to rise above whatever the world throws at them.
So should we err on the side of caution and ban all forms of physical punishment and prosecute those parents who deliver the occasional smack?
Dr Hempenstall agrees this is a decision which should be decided by our old friend ‘community standards’. But if almost 70 per cent of parents do believe the occasional smack is acceptable discipline, the government may find it difficult to implement and police a total ban on corporal punishment in the home.
Some have suggested more parent education will resolve the problem. However, community education programs are an expensive strategy which is suggested for just about every issue these days and my fear is community education will eventually become ineffective. Besides, most parents are well aware of what constitutes physical abuse and most have never crossed the line.
I am certain most of you would agree that those who physically abuse their children should be prosecuted. Although I don’t personally approve of smacking, if almost 70 per cent of parents believe the occasional smack is acceptable discipline, our country does not have the resources to prosecute every parent who is caught smacking a naughty child.