20/04/2011 07:36 BST | Updated 22/05/2015 06:12 BST

Smacking Is Out, But Are We More Verbally Vicious Than Our Parents Were?

Smacking is out, but are we more verbally vicious than our parents were? Getty

'That's it,' I screamed at the kitchen table the other night. 'If you don't stop messing around at the table and start eating up you'll go to bed without any dinner.'

My children stared at me open-mouthed, forks poised. Thankfully they've made it to the ripe old ages of four and six without ever having been threatened with starvation before.

They had no clue how to handle my outburst. After a few moments they both burst into hysterical laughter. Fortunately I saw the funny side of my desperate, last-ditch attempt to exert some discipline.

But it got me thinking - when did being sent to bed without supper stop being a legitimate form of discipline?
While I have no memory of ever being sent to bed without my dinner I think I'm right in saying that it was a fairly routine threat in the face of tea time misbehaviour, back when I was a child.

And I definitely recall my younger cousins pushing their parents to the point where their dinner was withdrawn, albeit only till a small, forlorn voice said 'But what about my food?' At which point all the adults crumpled with guilt and meal-time harmony was restored.

I would never dream of sending my child to bed without dinner but I was shocked to hear myself utter those immortal words, even as a threat that I had no real intention of following through on.

But even if we don't discipline our children as harshly as our parents did, are we much more verbally vicious than our parents were?

'I rant and rave at my children fairly regularly, especially when we're late getting somewhere - it's a real verbal ear bashing,' says Mary. 'But to be frank, I think they just tune me out.'

And what about smacking? 'A short, sharp smack from a parent put us straight as kids,' says my friend Sally. 'But most parents don't smack these days, and without that at our disposal I think we're much harsher with our words than our parents were. I'm not saying we should smack children, just that being verbally vicious isn't necessarily a better alternative to a smack.'

My friend Rachel agrees: 'I think parents, especially mums, do seem to lash out with their words instead of their hands.'

Rachel plans not to smack her own children but says that stems from the way society's views on smacking have changed, not her own feelings about having been smacked as a child. 'However, I'm aware that I could be very nasty with my tongue if I'm not careful, and I really don't want to be like that with my children,' she explains.

Rachel believes punishment should be part of a holistic 'regime' of discipline. 'The long term aim of disciplining a child should be to help them develop their own self-discipline,' she says. 'Our job is to help them learn how to control their urges, how to restrain themselves, how to be safe and kind to others, how to choose to do right things and be a person who is in control of their own body and behaviour. If my method for punishing my child reveals that I am not in control of myself, be it smacking, shouting or whatever, it will not teach them the lesson I really want them to learn.'

Hazel, 33, is expecting her first baby in June, and has mixed feelings about smacking. 'I was regularly walloped as a child and was consequently quite well-behaved and didn't grow up violent,' she says. 'However I instinctively feel I don't want to do that with any child of my own - the very idea of using hitting as a means of discipline appalls me. Though I also feel it did me no harm.'

Mum of two, Grace, has strong feelings on the subject. 'I was spanked a few times as a child. I don't think it was that successful but as a parent I think it's useful for setting boundaries and sticking to them,' she says. 'I also think it's really important to know when the smacking days are over and what the best form of discipline is for your child at each age, stage and situation. Whatever form of discipline you choose, if you're getting it right, the outcome will be a positive one.'

Father of one, James, agrees. 'If my son loses it, as all three year olds do, he gets time on the naughty step and then a discussion about why he is there,' he says. 'I'm more verbally persuasive than vicious. If he is being good, we treat him as an adult, if he behaves badly, he gets a dose of verbal reasoning. If he continues, he gets harsh words, delivered in a firm manner. Still going? Naughty step.'

So what do the experts think? Kitty Hagenbach is a child psychologist and runs Babiesknow, a pioneering parenting programme. 'As parents in this over busy life, we often feel tired or stressed and get angry with our children,' she says. 'But this does not teach children appropriate self discipline, in fact it increases aggression and is damaging to the all important child parent relationship.'

So what can we do, if we don't want to use desperate discipline measures?

'To bring about the change we want, we need to be the change we want to see,' says Kitty. 'It is helpful to understand our child's behaviour from a wiser perspective, enquiring into what is the underlying cause of the unacceptable behaviour. Rather than hitting or shouting, make a statement about what you see. "I see you have written on the wall again." Then name your own feelings: "I am upset about this and need you to stop doing it." Then, depending on your child's age, discuss the situation. "Let's sit down here together and talk about it."' Kitty explains.

Ultimately, Kitty says children need to feel safe with their parents. 'Fear may change short term behaviour but it will not have the desired effects in the long term,' she warns.

Closer to home, I have been issued with a warning at the hands of my four and six-year-old. If I ever threaten to send them to bed without dinner again they tell me I'll be grounded for life, and never allowed to drink coffee again. That should guarantee I don't step out of line again.

How do you discipline your children?
Do you rant and rave rather than the short sharp shock our parents dealt out?