12/01/2016 10:56 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST

Do Parents Who Smack In Public Need To Be Smacked Down?

Empty wooden spoon
Monzino via Getty Images
Empty wooden spoon

This morning I witnessed something that provides ammunition for endless amounts of cultural debate: a mother smacking her child. And now I'm at home wondering if I contributed to the mistreatment of children by turning the other way.

An hour ago, I was sitting at my local cafe with my husband and three children, sipping hot cups of coffee and soaking up some sunshine, talking about our goals for the coming year.

While we were there, two women and a small boy sat down at the table next to us. It was about five minutes in that I realised the mother was having difficulty with her son, aged around three, who was sitting next to her.

She was doing the teeth-clenched thing, muttering things like, "You're being a very naughty boy" and "You're usually good but today you're being very bad!" and "Do we need to go home?" Then, all of a sudden I heard the unmistakable sound of a slap. I looked up quickly, wondering if I had misheard.

In the busy café courtyard, I imagined more people would be looking up in horror if she had, in fact, hit her son. But to my surprise, everyone continued calmly sipping their coffees and turning their faces towards the sun.

I whispered to my husband: "I think that lady just smacked her boy".

One part of me wanted to catch her eye and give a disgruntled head shake as if to say: "I'm pretty sure I know what you just did, and I don't approve." The other part of me, entwined in a mish-mash of social awkwardness and confusion, was trying to look everywhere else.

The teeth clenching continued and, a moment later, I witnessed it: another, louder, unmistakable skin-to-skin smack on the little boy's thigh. My ears were ringing with the sound of it as I tried to collect myself. I was confused -- the mother was obviously embarrassed. She kept her eyes downcast and plastered a smile on her face as she tried to continue polite conversation with her friend (who, in the meantime, made absolutely no remark or reaction whatsoever). She may have been embarrassed, but clearly not enough to avoid smacking her son, twice, in a very public place.

I looked around the busy courtyard -- nobody blinked an eyelid.

It was just the other week that my stepfather tried to offer me some parenting advice during a discussion about my two eldest daughters' bedtime antics.

"Sometimes they just need a smack. It's as simple as that," he said.

This opened up a debate around our family dinner table. He was the only one out of seven adults who was in favour of the smack. Granted, he also grew up in the '50s, when a little whack around the ears was probably seen as something that would help to grow character, or put children in 'their place'.

In 2016, I don't think many people think it is okay to discipline children by smacking. But is standing by, embarrassed and too timid to say anything, just as bad? I try to teach my children to stand up for other people who are more vulnerable. However, when the opportunity came to do it myself, I did nothing, along with the 15 other people watching on.

As I replay the scene in my mind I wonder what I could have done or said that might have made a difference. I see myself standing up and pointing and saying a loud "That is not okay!" -- searching my audience of onlookers for support. Or perhaps a silent glare from behind my latte would have sufficed?

I suppose all I know is that smacking is wrong, and next time, the right thing to do would be to be brave enough to act.