How to discipline your child without spanking

Studies have shown that physical punishment can lead to increased aggression, antisocial behaviour, and mental health problems for children.

 Spanking makes a child feel helpless and damages self-esteem.

Most parents know by now that it is illegal to spank your own child in South Africa and has been for the last four years.

The high court judgment made on 19 October 2017 outlawing corporal punishment in private homes has been upheld. The ruling was challenged by the civil society group Freedom of Religion South Africa, which claimed that the decision would turn well-intentioned parents into criminals.

On September 18, 2019, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng upheld the 2017 high court ruling. So, what does this mean for parents who spank their children at home every now and then? Simply put: You’ll have to come up with other ways to discipline your children.

Rethink your disciplinary procedures

“This judgement is a significant statement to parents to rethink their disciplinary procedures and to ask themselves whether the current measures in place for discipline are resulting in the desired outcomes,” says Supervisor Jenna White of the Star Academy, which specialises in behaviour intervention programmes.

“As a behaviourist, I am in agreement with the court’s decision,” says Jenna, who advises that when dealing with a problem behaviour, the first step is to determine why it is occurring.

Often, communication difficulties are at the root of problem behaviour. Teaching and reinforcing communication skills such as asking for something or expressing an emotion, allows the child the opportunity to have their needs met in an appropriate and pro-social way, so that they no longer need to engage in challenging behaviour.

Alternative discipline methods you can try

“Behaviour can be improved by increasing the relevant skills, and managing the difficult behaviour when it does occur. Smacking is just dealing with a problem behaviour after it occurs, and not in the most effective way,” says Jenna.  

Rather use a behaviour intervention plan, which is not only reactive in response to the behaviour, but is also proactive – empowering children with alternatives and skills so they don’t engage in problem behaviour.

Try the ABA route

One of the most effective alternatives in dealing with challenging behaviour and enforcing discipline is by using the principles of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA):

Applied Behavioural Analysis focuses on three elements using the acronym ABC as follows:  

  1. Antecedent (what happens before the behaviour)
  2. Behaviour
  3. Consequence (what happens after the behaviour)

Jenna explains that when looking at a particular challenging behaviour, if we change what happens at A or what happens at point C, it is possible to change the challenging behaviour. “This mindset could assist parents in using the techniques of Applied Behavioural Analysis when considering disciplinary procedures,” she adds.

An example of using antecedent intervention:  

If you know your child always complains about having to go and bath, you could implement antecedent modification by preparing your child in advance by explaining that bath time will be at a certain time instead of just calling the child away from a desired activity to go and bath.

This antecedent modification allows the child time to transition to the idea that bath time is coming up soon.

An example where consequence intervention can decrease inappropriate behaviour:  

If your child is throwing a tantrum because he can’t get a sweet or toy, wait until he is calm before explaining to him that he can use appropriate language to communicate his desire for a lollipop or toy by asking for one instead of screaming. The child learns that when they scream, they don’t get what they want, but when they ask nicely, they do. “Of course each child is different and that is why it is essential to create a tailor-made programme, which deals with the needs of each particular child,” says Jenna.

She adds that rules and healthy discipline are important for children to understand boundaries. It makes them feel safe.

“Healthy discipline teaches kids to find different avenues rather than exhibiting challenging behaviour in order to get their needs met.  In this environment, children learn that there are appropriate consequences for their actions. In this context, discipline is a learning experience, providing kids the opportunity to learn from their mistakes in a safe and loving environment,” concludes Jenna.