Hand Slapping, Exploration, Confidence: An Important Understanding


How tempting it is to slap those daring little hands! Many parents do it without thinking, but consider the consequences. Maria Montessori, one of the earliest opponents of slapping children’s hands, believed that children’s hands are tools for exploring, an extension of the child’s natural curiosity. Slapping them sends a powerful negative message. Sensitive parents we have interviewed all agree that the hands should be off-limits for physical punishment. Research supports this idea. Psychologists studied a group of sixteen fourteen-month-olds playing with their mothers. When one group of toddlers tried to grab a forbidden object, they received a slap on the hand; the other group of toddlers did not receive physical punishment. In follow-up studies of these children seven months later, the punished babies were found to be less skilled at exploring their environment. Better to separate the child from the object or supervise his exploration and leave little hands unhurt.

I love this.  It’s brief, allows one to contemplate (which I am now), and doesn’t condemn or judge.  Bravo!

I know the urge… She’s grabbing it again (insert object of interest) and it either scares you, annoys you, or is in direct violation of whatever you just told her not to touch.  What is your instinct? You know that if you slap her hand, it will sting and therefore she’ll pull her hand away and theoretically stop touching whatever you want her to stop touching.  Gotta love instant gratification.  But if it were my daughter, she’d just touch it the moment I turned my back anyway, so why bother.

Now, the NGJ method would interject here that if I had smacked her hand hard enough, she’d have learned her lesson and would remember well enough to not touch whatever it was again.  This brings two thoughts to mind:  First, violence begets violence. Second, let’s just say the item I don’t want her to touch is my coffee mug.  Ok, so I slap her hand hard enough and frequently enough that she learns she is better off not touching it (because she doesn’t like pain, nor does she like the hit to her self confidence).  So what happens in a few years when I ask her to do the dishes and the only item that never gets tended to by her is my own damn coffee cup.

Hum… now what.  I mean, it’s not like I can say a word about it to her.  I have destroyed her confidence in handling my coffee cup, made it off limits across the board by physically punishing her for touching it, instead of working with her intellect so that she can learn the dangers, and now I want her to chip in and help wash the thing.    See my dilemma?

Expand that to an entire collection of items that we categorically define as off limits for babies and toddlers.  We instill confusion, a lack of confidence, hypocrisy, and an innate sense of “wrong” for things that are completely benign to any human of an age of comprehension.  This makes no sense.  If the child is too young to be educated on what or why not to touch the item, just remove the object from within their reach and possible interest until they are old enough to comprehend!

That said… In our case, as I stated above, my daughter will receive the instruction to not/stop touching something and then the moment I am not looking, she will graze the item with her fingertips in defiance, while quietly watching to see if I notice.  She’s pushing for control here. She’s testing her ability to control herself and her environment. She’s not trying to control me, but she is being defiant.  And you know what, I have noticed a pattern with this defiance.  IF I have instructed her not to touch something without educating her as to why (this includes the education going no further than it being my desire to have her leave something alone, no other logic involved), then the defiance is typically present  to one degree or another.  IF however, I have educated her as to why she should leave something alone and not touch/pick it up/etc., even if that education is simply that the item does not belong to us (but does specifically belong someone else, including me, excluding her) and therefore must only be explored by her eyes, she typically will not bother it.  And if she does, once reminded of why she shouldn’t, she usually dismisses her interest and self corrects.  Yes, she uses her own judgement and chooses to abstain from the temptation, of her own accord. Crazy, huh.

I think I can probably say that I have slapped her tiny little hands a total of a half dozen times in her entire life.  Each and every time it has been out of personal impatience, annoyance, and personal/internal frustration.  Once again, it’s me needing a physical release of a negative emotion caused by the interaction with my daughter and her independent and immature self. Yippee for me, I solved my concern with instant gratification for myself, no education for my daughter, and an example of violence and selfish response for her to ponder and remember.  Well then. I have also demonstrated my own laziness and impatience. I’m doing good.


Alternately, I can take the responsibility upon myself while she’s too young to comprehend and simply remove items from her reach or where she is even aware of their existence (I do not believe in negatively tempting children). Then,  after she reaches an age that she is able to comprehend reliably, I can instruct and educate her on why and what to abstain from touching or playing with. I can remind her as necessary, and if defiance is the reason for the reminder(s) being necessary, I can employ other techniques to get my point across (like if she won’t leave something of mine alone, I will simply not leave something of hers alone that she wants me to – and/or not allow her to have it until she makes the connection, which usually takes about 2 minutes).  And in the event she simply chooses to ignore and not make the connection, it’s usually bed time or time to change venue/activity and assert gently that she must acknowledge the importance of what I am imparting to her.  These times almost always correlate with fatigue, or fatigue.  Again, my responsibility to remedy and have the wisdom and sensitivity to manage properly.

There is one caveat: In the event that your child is reaching and millimeters away from an object that will severely injure and/or scar them physically or psychologically, and you have no time to react in any other fashion, then and only then would I personally condone the use of a harsh slapping away motion (this is different than a hand slap).  This quick reflex may cause a bit of a sting if it ends up being enough of a snap, but chances are that if it’s necessary it’s because you only have a split second to respond and save your little one’s hand, mind, or other body part.  This is a protective move, not a punishing one.  This sort of response is not out of annoyance but fear and desire to preserve the well being of the child.  I hope I am clear.

6 thoughts on “Hand Slapping, Exploration, Confidence: An Important Understanding

    • Sorry…forgot to add…

      Have you heard of Nonviolent Communication? We’re a peaceful family (no spanking, hitting, smacking, whipping, etc.) but that doesn’t mean we still do not have issues. I use to believe that Parenting with Love and Logic was great but I’ve seen their new works and wow…I don’t want to be associated with it now as many of their examples are simply frightening (they’ve a song to sing and locking the child in a room..).

      Anyways, I believed in logical consequence and we did that but after finding NVC by Marshall Rosenburg…talk about a HUGE difference. We all get our needs met, we all keep our dignity, our respect and are all heard and best of all…it makes a big positive difference.

      I was just wondering if you had ever thought about having a section with links/books for parents who want to parent gently….

      When Mon(tessori)(Wal)dorf (Attach)ment Parenting meet in our home

      • Absolutely concur on the good and bad of Love & Logic. I think they succumbed to the impatience of their following, and ended up generating a solution that satisfied those parents who were (loudly & $$ connected) seeking instant parenting response/gratification. Publishers give the buyers what they want to buy; authors cooperate.

        Nonviolent Communication is excellent. I haven’t had a chance to thoroughly research the entirety of their stance, but the thoughts and patience the title alone generates ought to get a lot of people reflecting.

    • I haven’t been able to follow much lately, but I’d suggest visiting http://nolongerquivering.com/ as if there is anything to be known, they’ll have it posted.

      I’m searching for studies and data to support the various scientific and neurological understandings we have related to this sort of punishment. I’m open to your feedback and/or any information you might have.

      • http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/709477


        Trocme, Nico, MacMillan, Harriet, Fallon, Barbara, Marco, Richard De
        Nature and severity of physical harm caused by child abuse and neglect: results from the Canadian Incidence Study
        CMAJ 2003 169: 911-915

        Goldbloom, Richard B.
        Spare the child
        CMAJ 2002 166: 1191

        Gray, Charlotte
        Pediatricians taking new look at corporal-punishment issue
        CMAJ 2002 166: 793

        Straus, Murray A.
        Is it time to ban corporal punishment of children?
        CMAJ 1999 161: 821-822
        *This one is VERY good.

        MacMillan, Harriet L., Boyle, Michael H., Wong, Maria Y.-Y., Duku, Eric K., Fleming, Jan E., Walsh, Christine A.
        Slapping and spanking in childhood and its association with lifetime prevalence of psychiatric disorders in a general population sample
        CMAJ 1999 161: 805-809

        Williams, B.
        No purpose to spanking infants or charging parents
        CMAJ 1995 153: 742-743

        Cohen, L.
        Debate about parents’ right to spank causes divisions among MDs
        CMAJ 1995 153: 73-75

        …these are all from the Canadian Medical Association site. Search under corporal punishment.

        Sweden has banned spanking but it(Sweden) has seen an increase in child abuse. I know that seems counter productive, but there is no ‘backing it up’. It’s not a law…it’s only a ‘we frown on spanking’ and they do classes to teach better disciplining techniques. So while abuse has increased they are looking into more classes and such like what was done in the 70’s when they first implemented the ban. It seems that when support goes out the window…abuse is the result. I don’t have anything over that but NPR did an interview that was simply insulting about Sweden’s ban on spanking.

        I hope this helps. I’ll look through and try to find more studies I’ve read to send your way. Oh…and studies have shown that men who were spanked/whipped as children commit suicide more than those who were not abused.


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