Recently, a Youtube clip of a mother pulling her daughter off a bed and smacking her, while the younger sister lay perfectly still while this was occurring, was shown repeatedly on National TV. This mother defended her strong opinion that smacking (and the accompanying tirade that was recorded by the camera) was/is a valid way of parenting and that it didn’t do her any harm as a child, when smacked by her parent. Such opinions are not new and are also difficult to discuss. We all have our opinions on such matters.
My contribution to this discussion focuses on the effect on the child. The smack (and accompanying tirade), done repeated to a particular child, constitutes an ongoing ‘activating agent’ for the child concerned. This results in an ongoing ‘consequence’ for the child. This consequence is both a ‘feeling’ and a ‘behaviour.’ Feelings can range from fear of the parent, to resentment of the parent. Such feelings can result in an instant submission, and to a long-term hatred for the parent. Such long-term outcomes are difficult for any parent to detect at the time of the incident.
Every child is different and therefore will have a different response to repeated smacking. For this mother, who claims that there was no long-term effect on herself personally, we could give her the benefit of the doubt, and declare: ‘Lucky you.’ However I don’t think we can claim that this will be the outcome for every child, or even for her two daughters. Every person’s response will be different. The human reaction / response to violence can be lasting.
The child who is repeatedly smacked is also a thinking person. What she now ‘thinks’ about her mother, about what her mother is doing to her, what her mother is not doing to her sister, is less available to the mother during the incident. We can all read the feelings of another person from observing their non-verbals, and provide a ball-park feeling, however, we cannot know the range of thoughts that the child (or teen) would be thinking at that moment and after the moment passes. Such thinking can be also called beliefs, perceptions, judgments, automatic thoughts, first thoughts, mental models, irrational thoughts, explanatory style, attributional style,depending on which author you are consulting
As Martin Seligman said in his book ‘The Optimistic Child’…‘Explanatory style develops in childhood, and without explicit intervention is lifelong.” (p.52). The girl in the video clip could be believing right now that: “My mother hates me….she likes my sister better…she loves her more than me.” Such beliefs can be carried through life and surface in adult counselling at 45 years plus. Sibling rivalry is often based on such thinking.
What PET can offer any mother and father (who is interested in a non-magic wand approach to parenting), is the I-message method of communicating that would give a child reasons for stopping whatever s/he is doing, and in a manner that could result in:
- a change in the child’s behaviour to comply with the parent’s wishes,
- the child’s self-esteem not being damaged or minimized,
- a maintaining or enhancement of the parent – child relationship over the long and short term.
And most importantly, PET would offer the parent a method to respond to resistance/defiance to a parent’s request that would normally be expressed by the child, (ie. the skill of ‘shifting gears.’)
Until an alternative is experienced by parents, the age-old debate on ‘To smack or not to smack’ will continue.