Is It Ever OK To Smack A Child?

After Martin Freeman admitted he has done it, parents are now debating whether corporal punishment is ever a necessary form of discipline.

The Slap

by Georgia Aspinall |
Updated on

The actor Martin Freeman has admitted to smacking his children when they were young, saying that sometimes it’s just too difficult to rationalise with a toddler. His comments have sparked debate around whether it is ever OK to smack a child, and if not, how you can discipline a toddler in emotionally charged situations.

‘One of the rules is, don’t smack your kids or call them little f_ers. But, you know, I’ve done both,’ the actor – who has two children now aged 14 and 11 – told The Sunday Times. ‘I’ve probably smacked twice, but I’ve called them little f_ers more than twice.

‘I know I’m not supposed to do it, but there are so many images about how [parenting] all just has to be brilliant that it makes people feel bad,’ he continued. ‘Because it’s not brilliant. I mean, it is — it’s the best thing I’ll do. But that doesn’t mean it’s not really hard. This idea you only ever rationalise with a toddler? Genuinely, good luck. If you can do that, God go with you. Amazing.’

Since making his comments, Dame Esther Rantzen, founder of ChildLine charity, told the publication, ‘I would say to Martin, “I’m sorry to hear that, because I know you care about children, but I don’t think this is your finest hour”.'

The NSPCC has called for a complete ban on smacking, as is the case in Scotland and will be in Wales in 2022 following a 2018 vote by the Welsh Government. Currently in England, The Children Act 2004 outlaws smacking unless it amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’ – but there has long been talk of adopting the Scottish and now Welsh policy.

According to a report published by a group of Scottish children’s charities in 2015, 70-80% of parents in the UK have used physical punishment with their children – with those aged between three and seven the most likely to be smacked.

‘There’s a huge amount of research around what corporal punishment does to children, and it does definitely lead to increased anxiety and aggression,’ Pam Custers, a family psychotherapist and member of the counselling directory, told Grazia. ‘Small children are not able to modulate their feelings and emotions so big feelings like anger or frustration feel out of control for them. So, if a toddler is “out of control”, even though it presses all of our buttons as a parent, if we get out of control as well it's incredibly frightening for a child.

By smacking a child we're activating their brain into fight or flight

‘We really don't want children fear us,’ Custers continues. ‘By smacking, what we’re doing is activating their brain into fight or flight. Anxiety is about flight, and aggression is about fight, so we’re priming a part of their brain to respond either by withdrawing or becoming aggressive themselves.'

While Custers, who has children herself, can empathise with parents who do feel out of control in highly emotional circumstances, she advises parents to model emotional intelligence by asking their children to talk about their feelings rather than smacking them.

‘Really we have to model the kind of behaviour we want even if it is excruciatingly difficult,’ she says. ‘What parents can do instead of trying to just close the feeling down is ask them, “Are you feeling frustrated?” or “You sound really angry, is that what you're feeling right now?” What you're modelling there is for them to be able to verbalise their feelings and understand what's going on. It then becomes more manageable for them.’

But what about in circumstances where a child is putting themselves in danger? One parent that we spoke to, for example, said she only smacks her child if they did something dangerous such as running into the road.

‘It's interesting because what we’re responding to in that instance is our own flight or fight,’ Custers explains. ‘A part of our brain called the amygdala is triggered and that's why parents will often give the children a smack when they're about to run into the road because the level of adrenaline the parent feels is so huge. But I would say that even in those circumstances, smacking is not a good idea.’

Instead, Custers advises keeping hold of children when crossing the road until they have a clear awareness of road safety – which, according to one 2017 study, might not be until they are 14 years old since children’s perception skills around speed of cars and traffic awareness in general have not fully developed until then. ‘We can’t have expectations of our children that neurologically they just don’t have,’ Custers notes.

And it’s not just a child’s psychology at the time that can be impacted by smacking. It can also have an impact on our emotional wellbeing as an adult.

The formative years really do inform who we are and the kind of relationships we have as adults

‘Certainly in my practice, we will find that some people sometimes have difficulties showing feelings or emotions and can’t quite locate why that is. It may be that from childhood they couldn’t express anger or feelings because there would be pushback from parents.

‘What we know is that the formative years really do inform who we are. And if we know that smacking causes anxiety and causes aggression, that might affect our adult years.’

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