Why the disciplining of children should never mean “PUNISHMENT”


Many years ago when my son was 18 months old we were at home one day sitting on the floor, I had just made a cup of tea and had it on the floor, I kept telling Dave not to knock it over but of course he did, I was so frustrated that I slapped him just above the backs of his knees, his feet left the floor and he landed on his back. I got such a shock that I started to cry, I vowed there and then to never smack my son again, and I never did. That is how I remember it, but interestingly 27 years later my Wife has a slightly different version, she says that I actually hit him on his nappy and he fell onto his backside, and then she said that she told me that if I ever did that again that there would be no place in their lives for me. Either way the smacking was something that affected us all.

As a father and a professional social care worker, I am often asked by parents for my opinion on parenting skills and how to manage children. On many of these occasions when discussing discipline what I hear from parents is the need to feel that the child has been punished for whatever their indiscretion might be. This is a clear sign to me that there is frustration at play and the parental control dynamic is askew. Why would this happen, why would a parent feel the need to punish their child, why do we shout, slap, shake or send children to their room. What underpins this frustration, as parents do we feel we’ve lost control, is this where the underlying problem is.

When a child is born into a family the family goes through a process called attachment (http://www.essex.ac.uk/armedcon/unit/projects/wwbc_guide/wwbc.chapter.1.english.pdf), this is the time when the family (mostly the mother) spend all their time responding to the Childs need, it is supposed to be an innate process but is influenced by how we ourselves were parented. If this first stage of the parenting process goes well the likelihood is that we will have a happy, securely attached, contented child. If there is disruption to this process we may be left with a child that is less securely attached and we may have to do a little more work to re-build the bonds of attachment.

As a child grows and begins to explore its environment it needs to be guided by us the parents, all too often I see parents intervening instead of guiding. A child must be let do things, they must be let challenge themselves, and they need to be allowed to put themselves in at risk situations so that we can model for them what is safe and what is unsafe. This type of modelling behaviour is very positive for a child, they feel very secure watching their parent doing something and then helping them do it, it helps them make sense of their world.

Children as they get older find a myriad of ways to communicate with us, the most fascinating way for them is through speech, watch a child who has learnt that they can make sound, they do the behaviour non-stop because we react to it, they see happy smiling faces and recognise that as being a positive expression so they repeat the behaviour. That is the kernel of all future parenting, instead of negative, harsh, punitive discipline we need to model pro-active, caring, loving behaviour.

When we want a child to learn something it is our job to show them and explain to them, this may need to be shown time and time and time again, and as we spend this time showing our children we are re-enforcing the relationship, the love, trust and care. Children will not always get everything right, but again it is our job to show them where and how they went awry, then we can take the opportunity to model the behaviour we want to see. This is why punitive harsh treatment such as slapping and shouting at a child doesn’t work, all this teaches a child is that shouting and hitting and disrespect are what we use to get something that we want done. (http://www.eumom.ie/Parenting/Slapping-Your-Children.aspx)

As children get a little older and are capable of doing little pieces of work for themselves then we need to take the opportunity to place expectations into their daily routine, we may need to give them lots of encouragement around this and spend time showing them exactly what we want them to learn but ultimately what we will achieve is a young child who has a sense of worth and who will have finely attuned self esteem.

The type of tasks can be as simple as completing a bedtime routine, bringing down their washing, helping in the kitchen, completing schoolwork etc. All of these tasks can be modelled and explained to our children, all too often in order to get something finished we complete tasks for our children as we are frustrated by the amount of time it takes for them to complete them, I always implore parents to allow the children complete the tasks themselves with support, this fosters self esteem and helps them develop.

One area that I often hear parents giving out about is the constant battle they go through when trying to get their children dressed, I often hear “he wouldn’t wear that and he wouldn’t wear this”, many times I have said to parents why don’t you let the child wear what they want or as a minimal give them a choice, this is a good skill to teach young children, it helps them become independent and alleviates any arguments.

The result of this style of positive parenting is that we will have helped our children to become autonomous, disciplined, caring children. They will grow into young adults who are capable and loving, respectful and caring. They will be able to have positive relationships and will be less likely to give into peer pressure. They will be able to cope with all that the world can throw at them and when they can’t they will be confident enough to be able to find the help they need. (http://www.helpme2parent.ie/BuildSelf-Esteem.html)

And finally when they themselves become parents they will be able to repeat all the positive behaviours that they have learned with their children.

So remember when you are at your wits end, are fit to be tied and ready to explode, take a breather and see how you can show and explain to your child exactly what you want them to do…..then when you have done that congratulate them and yourself for a job well done.

Good Luck


Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. He is a Member of The Irish Association of Social Care Workers, Social Justice Ireland and the YES Campaign for Children.

All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.


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