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Suggestions from children on how to help us behave

Beth Wood

Children have some very good ideas on how they could be disciplined without the use of physical punishment.

Journal issue: 

Suggestions from children
on how to help us behave

Beth Wood

Office of the Commissioner for Children



HISTORICALLY SOCIETIES have regarded the use of physical punishment of children as an appropriate way of achieving socialisation. Its use has been, and still is, justified as a necessary component in training children to behave well. Various authors have recorded historical attitudes towards child rearing and on the whole report a curious tendency towards brutality. In the debate about the use of physical punishment of children there are two opposing views and a middle ground containing the vast majority of adults who hit children not out of strong conviction about “breaking the will” but out of habit and lack of information about the fact that children can be raised well without their being hit. Unfortunately there is also a significant group to whom blind violence is an acceptable, perhaps even admirable, form of expressing anger and getting what is wanted from children.

Recent research from New Zealand and Australia

Hitting children is still a popular method of responding to childhood misdeeds or disobedience and of expressing adult anger towards children. Although research by Gay Maxwell in late 1993 found a change in New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the use of the extreme forms of physical punishment, still 87 percent of parents reported believing that there are certain circumstances where it was acceptable for a parent to smack a child. Only 12 percent of parents believed that they should never physically punish their children. Most parents, 66 percent, endorsed smacking sometimes but did not agree with hitting or thrashing.

There was however a reported change in behaviour. In the 1993 study 30 percent of the parents reported never having physically punished their children at all, 59 percent reported having smacked but never hit or thrashed and only 11 percent reported hitting or thrashing their children. At the same time 77 percent reported explaining or discussing their children’s misbehaviour with them. Verbal strategies are becoming the favoured ways of responding to misbehaviour.

These results are generally very similar with respect to both attitudes and behaviour to those reported by Wightman in South Australia in 1993. She reported that only 11 percent of a sample in South Australia disagreed with the use of physical punishment and that only 3.6 percent of those surveyed had ever hit a child. One interesting finding in this study is that 24 percent of the respondents admitted feeling so angry when hitting or smacking a child that they were worried that they might get carried away and injure the child. Underlying these findings is a feeling of helplessness about disciplining children. Half of the parents in this study said that parents did not have enough information about different ways of disciplining children.


As the Australian findings suggest, the use of physical punishment can lead to quite severe physical abuse of children. It can also provide role models for children which will lead them to behave violently towards their peers as well as towards their own children in turn. A study of school children in Dunedin in 1992 demonstrated that those children who reported being physically disciplined by their parents were much more likely to report intending to use physical methods of disciplining their own children when they were parents.

Teachers and the law

The use of physical force in New Zealand schools is legislated against under the Education Act 1989 (139a), although in every state and territory in Australia the law makes an exception to the law of assault and allows parents, carers and teachers to use physical punishment provided no more than “reasonable force” is used. In South Australia, Australian Capital Territory and Victoria the use of corporal punishment by teachers breaches Education Department policy and a teacher in a government school could face disciplinary proceedings for hitting students. But that same teacher could still justify any caning or strapping as reasonable chastisement if faced with criminal charges or a civil claim for assault. All other states and territories allow corporal punishment in government schools (although some states have policies limiting its use). Corporal punishment is legal in all Australian independent schools.

Teachers as role models

The use of physical force with children can demonstrate violence and can place children at risk of injury. Habits tend to escalate — a small, occasional slap can soon become a stronger, more frequent blow. Parents tend to hit children either because they believe it is the only way to discipline them, or they do not know of any alternative, or out of habit.

Teachers hold an influential position in breaking the cycle of violence. They can encourage discussions with their classes, and can demonstrate and model the principles of decent human relationships contained in the children’s suggestions. In their own classroom they can reinforce positive attitudes towards children’s behaviour as well as attempt to influence parental behaviour.


Who better to ask about how to achieve “disciplined children” without using physical force than the recipients, or the potential recipients, the children themselves.

Children’s views on promoting positive behaviour

Being committed to seeking the views of children and young people on matters which affect them, The Office of the Commissioner for Children conducted a study to ask children how they thought adults could most positively affect their behaviour.

Discussion groups were held with approximately 40 students, from 9 to 11 years old, at two Wellington schools (one primary and one intermediate). The aim of the sessions was to facilitate the children’s expression of their ideas with the help of the teachers they knew well. I did not impose my ideas on them and chose to be very careful not to imply criticism of their parents or take a stand on the use of physical punishment. I did however want to encourage the children to value their ideas and I responded positively to their suggestions. The children came from a variety of cultures and backgrounds and there was remarkable consistency in what they said. They all displayed a serious, thoughtful and responsible attitude to the discussion and most contributed consistently.

Examples of “good behaviour” described by the students:

being polite helping without being asked thinking of others not annoying doing what you are told the first time being cooperative working productively listening and not interrupting cleaning up your own mess respecting other people’s opinions having faith in people forgiving being friendly showing respect not saying “bad” things not tricking the teacher not giving parents a hard time helping parents sharing not fighting.

Examples of “bad” behaviour:

disobedience talking over people being lazy fighting breaking confidences jumping on furniture refusing to do chores being rude not doing homework being bossy talking back using bad language pestering destroying things putting people down ignoring hitting stealing drug dealing swearing cheating gangs calling names lighting fires using weapons drinking and driving crime throwing dangerous things lying not telling parents where you are going graffiti running away going out without permission nagging.


How can adults encourage children to behave well?

make contracts with us don’t hit us be kind don’t abuse us discuss things with us let us cool down make us feel important notice what we are doing give rewards for good behaviour support us – don’t put us down praise us be firm have a sense of humour do things with us listen to us and give your opinion don’t speak harshly keep calm have fun with us show us the right things to do help us when we need help be friendly, kind and helpful be fair don’t be too strict set a good example listen to both sides of the story compromise sometimes trust us know what we are doing understand us don’t patronise us show that you like us.

What should adults do when you misbehave?

tell us off or take things away if we do something wrong talk about it let us know what they don’t like keep us away from bad influences keep us busy punish us take something away from us explain what we have done wrong show us how to do it next time don’t get too angry make consequences we can learn from tell us off but don’t rub it in warn us if what we have done is not serious warn us – don’t just tell us after the event use a firm voice but don’t scream at us be fair.

As parents themselves the students thought they would:

give their children choices just talk to them but not hit them [a few thought hitting was ok with very young children who could not understand words] speak with authority explain rules use punishments that fit the behaviour for example give chores to do make sure their children understand what they can do encourage their children to be independent reward their children if they did things right and take money away if they did something wrong let them calm down before they talk to them not push or pressure them not force them to do activities they did not want to do not expect too much of them for their age give help when needed be kind and generous give them a good education teach them not to abuse their children set a good example show they care teach good manners not teach them to steal not let them hang out with street kids guide them not chuck them out on the streets teach them right from wrong encourage them calm them down if they are angry teach them to be honest bribe them give them some freedom sometimes let them have their own way spend time with them so they don’t feel unwanted teach them that doing chores is part of being in a family treat all the children the same.

Experiences which students thought influenced them to behave badly:

other children’s behaviour particularly brothers’ and sisters’ being ignored being tired being teased being given a hard time by other people being yelled at, growled at or smacked being insulted particularly about your nationality some TV programmes having no friends people getting smart to you people setting poor examples.

Other suggestions:

don’t hit it makes things worse grown-ups should keep out of trouble themselves and set a good example don’t hit your children because they will hit their children don’t abuse them physically or sexually don’t teach them bad language teach them to do the right thing apologise to your children if you get things wrong be close to your children let them say what they feel let your children do something like karate which will teach them self respect and discipline and how to use physical strength in a good way keep your promises don’t tease them or make them feel silly never use “When I was a kid”.


A pamphlet was compiled using many of the ideas of primary and secondary school students about adult behaviour which positively affected their behaviour. There has been good feedback about the content and effectiveness of the pamphlet. The students’ ideas were helpful and many displayed a considerable depth of understanding of themselves and parents as well as a clear sense of right and wrong. The exercise seeking the student’s views arose as part of developing information for use with adults about alternatives to the use of physical punishment in managing children. The student’s responses demonstrated attitudes many adults could do with reminding about.

The seven questions asked during this study could form the basis for discussions in classrooms with children of any age, and with parents.

Image&&Give me some examples of “being good” or “behaving well”.

Image&&And some examples of “behaving badly”.

Image&&I want to know more about the ways in which adults can encourage you to behave well. Can you give me some ideas?

Image&&What should adults do when you misbehave? Think about things that are likely to make you behave better another time.

Image&&When you grow up and become a parent what will you do to help your children behave well?

Image&&What other things make children behave well or badly?

Image&&We are going to make a pamphlet about young people’s ideas about what makes them behave well so that adults can learn from them. Have you any other ideas?


Beth Wood is a senior Advisory Officer, Office of the Commissioner for Children, Wellington.

The pamphlet which contains some of the students’ suggestions from this study is:

Some suggestions on how to help us behave. (1994). Wellington: Office of the Commissioner for Children, P O Box 12537, Wellington.

The Office of the Commissioner for Children is committed to promoting children’s rights. In 1992 it began a campaign to raise awareness about the negative aspects of the use of physical force in discipline with children. The main aims of the campaign were:

•&&to promote children’s rights,

•&&to inform parents and others that there are many effective forms of socialising and controlling children which do not involve the use of force,

•&&to draw attention to the fact that children learn from the models they witness and

•&&to share the view that attitudes about the use of force in discipline with children, and the use of violence generally to solve conflict, have been found to be factors contributing to the likelihood of physical abuse of children occurring.

In September of 1993 the Office of the Commissioner for Children launched the pamphlets Think About It: Is Hitting Your Children a Good Idea? and Hitting Children is Unjust. Further efforts from the Office of the Commissioner for Children to change attitudes the use of physical punishment with children have been directed at continuing to raise awareness on associated issues - to inform generally about the management of children without violence and to keep the issue alive.

In 1994 a set of pamphlets, stickers and posters, Living in a no-hitting family were aimed at re-inforcing the message of family nonviolence. Children are very much part of the family and should not be hit, or hit each other either. A Teaching Resource Kit (Living in a no-hitting family: children are family members too) has been developed for use by community educators.

New Zealand attitudes towards the use of physical punishment are documented in:

Maxwell, G.M. (1993). Physical Punishment in the home in New Zealand. Wellington: Office of the Commissioner for Children.


Ritchie, J. & J. (1981). Spare the Rod. Allen and Unwin.

That physical disciplinary action can escalate into child abuse is documented in:

Kadushin, A. & Martin, J. A. (1981). Child abuse: An Interactional Event. Colombia University Press.

The teaching resource kit is:

Wood, B. (1994). Living in a no-hitting family; Teaching resource kit. Wellington: Office of the Commissioner for Children.