Smacking gets slap on the wrist

1st August 1997 at 01:00
Three in every four babies have been smacked by the time they reach their first birthdays, and physical punishment of small children is still an everyday occurrence.

Such Department of Health statistics lie behind this summer's publication of two booklets for parents which aim to make smacking redundant. The authors - childcare expert Penelope Leach and two Nottingham University academics - say hitting children is not only wrong, but ineffective.

Dr Leach has joined forces with the National Early Years Network and the charity Barnardo's to publish Why Speak Out Against Smacking? and Getting Positive About Discipline.

Coincidentally, Professor John Pearce and Dr Anne Thompson of Nottingham University are about to publish a booklet in collaboration with high-street chemist Boots on the alternatives to smacking.

Penelope Leach, who co-ordinates efforts to educate parents by the End Physical Punishment of Children campaign, says: "Adult example is the most important means by which children learn how to behave and smacking sets children an example few parents would want them to follow.

However, she admits: "When the chips are down, personal violence is a good way to get what you want.

"If a child is crawling towards a hot oven or running into a dangerous road, of course it is essential to use physical means to protect him or her - fast. "

Grabbing children under such circumstances, even if it inadvertently causes pain, is legitimate, says Dr Leach, but hitting them is not. "When the hand lands, the hurt it delivers will distract the child from the lesson the adult means to teach about danger."

However, Professor Pearce, a child psychiatrist and father-of-three, believes it is acceptable to give children, who have not yet learnt to talk, a tap on the back of the hand at the same time as saying "no" when they reach for the plug socket for the umpteenth time. "It is reinforcing language in a physical way," he said.

The anti-smacking strategies in the Nottingham University booklet will be piloted with local parents. If they are successful, Professor Pearce hopes the booklet will be published nationwide.

His prime alternative strategy is "positive discipline" - an approach Dr Leach also explores. She says that "positive discipline" treats children as apprentice people, rather than as members of a different species; it builds on their desire to please adults; and aims to achieve self-discipline rather than just obedience.

Professor Pearce believes too many parents no longer train their offspring to behave well, but, reassuringly, he says it is impossible to be a perfect parent. He smacked his children when they were young but soon realised it caused more trouble than it was worth.

"It's like getting a loan from the bank. It feels good at the time but you have to pay it back later with interest," he said. A sentiment with which Dr Leach heartily concurs.

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