26/10/2017 11:55 SAST | Updated 26/10/2017 14:21 SAST

Spanking Is More Harmful To Children Than Parents Realise, Says Psychologist

"There are other ways to discipline your child effectively."

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There are other ways of disciplining your child, and they do not have to involve spanking.

This is the view of two educational psychologists -- after a recent court ruling declared it illegal to spank your own child in South Africa.

"The big challenge here is that alternative methods of disciplining your child, such as talking to your child, are not that popular in some cultures," pointed out Dr Henry Muribwathoho, an educational psychologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. "But this does not mean they are not effective," he added.

Spanking can have negative consequences

Children are disciplined to establish healthy psychological boundaries and to teach them acceptable behaviours. This is the view of Brits-based educational psychologist, Dr Jeanne Meiring.

"Some parents, however, lose sight of this and discipline to invoke fear in their children or to force them to rigidly conform to the parents' values," Meiring explained to HuffPost SA.

This can break a child down psychologically, as has been noted in psychological literature. "An overly authoritarian parenting discipline style can lead to poor psychological well-being in children," she added.

Excessive spanking, combined with other family factors could potentially lead to the following in some children:

  • Higher levels of aggression
  • Mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Delinquent and antisocial behaviour
  • Lower levels of emotional intelligence in children
  • Violence in future relationships, where the individual believes that violence is the only way to resolve conflict

"Already, violence in this country is at a staggering level, especially meted out against children," pointed out Muribwathoho.

"If you [smack] your child out of extreme anger, and you are prone to do this, a child may grow up thinking [smacking] or severe beating is how you discipline everything and anyone, creating a vicious cycle," he said.

"The big challenge here is that alternative methods of disciplining your child, such as talking to your child, are not that popular in some cultures."

"Also, with increasing stress and depression levels in the country and challenges of substance abuse by parents in the home, we have seen how parents can consequently take out their frustrations on their children," he added.

Muribwathoho believes the ruling may, therefore, help prevent the vicious cycle of violence in South Africa.

He also noted that while "as Africans, especially," most of us were raised in homes in which we were spanked, it does not mean it is right, or that it is the best method to discipline children.

There are alternative ways of disciplining a child

Muribwathoho firmly believes talking to your child, for example, can be very effective. He suggested pointing out what a child has done wrong and, in their language, speaking to them about it to correct that behaviour.

"Pre-schoolers, for instance, frequently misbehave when they want to express themselves emotionally, or want to understand which behaviours are acceptable from a parent or not. It is therefore important to understand what led to the unacceptable behaviour in the first place and help them reach their own acceptable solutions," suggested Meiring.

Other ways could include:

  • Taking away some privileges -- for example going to parties, or entertainment objects such as a cellphone or an x-box. Parents, however, should do this for a certain amount of time and make it clear that it's a consequence of misbehaving and also tell the child what's expected of them.
  • Using a "token-economy" -- where a child receives a token or star for specific positive behaviours and the tokens or stars are taken away when they misbehave. The child can then receive a reward after they have collected a certain number of tokens at the end of the week.

Meiring emphasized that parents should agree on their disciplining style and should be consistent in their disciplining efforts. "Alternatively, if you choose to discipline one behaviour on a Monday, you should continue doing so on all other days of the week," she noted.


Muribwathoho acknowledged, however, that this is not a straightforward or simple matter.

In some families, the "naughty corner" or talking to your child may be difficult, due to the number of children you have under one roof. "Children like to test or stretch parents, so if there are five of them all under the age of 10, for example, it may be more challenging to talk through all their naughtiness."

Another challenge may be present in single-parent-headed households, in which disciplining a child is one person's responsibility. "A parent may simply be too overwhelmed."

Children who have undiagnosed psychological conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety disorders may also present a different set of challenges where discipline is concerned.

"While we continually find ways of addressing these psychological and socioeconomic challenges, spanking cannot be the way," said Muribwathoho.

"Children are not born naughty and they do not want to disappoint their parents," he added.

"At the end of the day, we want to raise emotionally mature kids who will also be emotionally healthy parents to their children," Muribwathoho concluded.