Is it ever okay to smack a toddler?


Mr 18 month toddler and I had a delightful afternoon by the pool while on our family baby moon this week on the Gold Coast. By delightful I certainty do not mean relaxing, but more playful and adventurous.

It was all fun and games until one of the other kids in the pool was roughly picked up by a family member (I assume the grandfather judging by his age), who lifted the 10-year old boy into the air and began to yell angrily saying:

Don’t you do that you hear me!
That is the MOST disgusting thing you can ever do to another human being.

He carelessly put the boy down, and then continued his barrage, pointing his finger as the boy cowered on the ground with a bowed head, saying “I can’t believe that you thought that was funny. It is not funny it is disgusting”.

Not moments after the grandfather had completed his heated spitting of words, that Mr 18 months had picked up a stone and threw it at a girl who was swimming in the spa nearby, only just missing her face. I growled at Master X, having told him numerous already to put down the rock and then plucked him from the water to remove him from the space. This action felt overt, almost mirroring that of the grandfather even though I was not yelling or shaking him.

Mr A and I have been struggling lately with Master X’s defiance and how to handle his complete lack of listening even in the face of danger. In a pool situation where it is likely he is only going to hurt himself temporarily (for example, by stepping into deep water) I let him experience the effects of his lack of obedience (that word does not seem right, because we are trying to protect him, not get him to play to our every command). In the situation of deep water, I feel this is an important lesson for him to learn so that he thinks before leaping into unknown depths.

A few weeks ago I was confronted with the question of what constitutes an appropriate response for blatant disobedience from a toddler when a parent I know smacked their child for pulling on an animal’s tail, even after being asked not to several times. The parent said that they smacked only if the child does not listen after several attempts and their behaviour is going to cause damage to themselves, or someone else. In this case the action was hurting the animal but more pressing, that the action could illicit a dangerous response from the animal towards the child like jumping or biting.

I was smacked as a child, as was Mr A and we turned out alright —–>

—–> Right?

I remember being on a long car trip and my brother and I were fighting each other by snaking our hands behind my sister’s car seat which was anchored in the middle seat, and causing each other to scream by poking the other. We were fighting, but it was also out of fun. Dad had asked us numerous times to stop fighting as we were very loud and we disobeyed, continuing to yell and scream in the backseat as we poked each other. Mum (who was driving) pulled over suddenly onto the side-way, and dad turned around and smacked my brother and I with an open palm. For some reason, I thought this was hilarious (maybe nervous laughter, or the fact that my brother and I were just kidding around) and began laughing uncontrollably. This angered dad and spurred him to smack me a few more times. My brother and I talked about this  episode a few years ago, and recalled how every smack just made us laugh harder.

Looking back I can see the issues from my parents’ point of view, that screaming in the backseat behind the driver on a busy highway over a peak travel time was a dangerous action. Our blatant ignoring of dad and mum’s assertions to stop our behaviour could have inflicted danger on someone else, and ourselves.

I have a confession to make – Mr A and I both smacked Mr X’s bottom recently. It did not feel good, it did not feel right and it upsets me that it was my automatic reaction to a dangerous situation. This was not what we had discussed about raising our children, because we understand the research around smacking (which was not available when my parent’s were parenting), and also having been smacked ourselves it was not something we wanted for our relationship with our kids. So why was it our go-to reaction? Was it worth it?

The smack to our toddler in both circumstances did stop the action. And I think in the case of the grandfather by the pool today that the 10 year-old is unlikely to spit in someone’s face again. But was it worth it?

I am not able to shake this tight chest when I think about how I felt after smacking Master X. Is it ever okay.jpgAlthough it was just a light, open palm contact with his nappy, the action and what it stands for – power, control, disempowerment – are not worth it for me. It is not worth the pain of knowing that I used an act of control over my son, that it was a reaction of thoughtlessness and deliberate an antonym to our chosen parenting styles which is everything through respect.

It is my son’s body and I have no right to exert physical control over him in the way of smacking. As I reflect on this episode however I can see that our reaction is learnt, entrenched and reactive based on our own expectations of the relationship between child and parent which we are trying to change, mould and develop away from our experiences and the experiences of what we see in our friends and in the public.

5 thoughts on “Is it ever okay to smack a toddler?

  1. I admit with shame that I have smacked my eldest, only to be praised by my mother. But that’s not okay. Kids don’t understand why you’re hurting them, and smacking them is abusing the position of power you have over them.


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