Being hit as a child didn’t do me any harm. Where would I be today if my parents hadn’t physically punished me?
Being hit by your parents is probably the main reason you support physical punishment because research shows that parents who were smacked as children are much more likely to use it and believe in it themselves. One reason for this is that children are physically punished when they are young and impressionable so the practice becomes internalised and unexamined.
We do not have to behave as our parents did. This does not mean we respect them less. Societies move forward and abandon violent or unjust traditions – outlawing physical punishment is part of this process.
Aren’t abusive beatings and a loving smack completely different things?
Some people, particularly politicians anxious to maintain the status quo, say that mild smacks do not constitute violence and do not hurt the child. This is self-deluding. No-one would maintain a man giving a woman a mild smack was “not violence”, and as far as smacks “not really hurting”, studies of young children’s views of smacking will soon disabuse you of this notion. When a smacked child says “that didn’t hurt”, he or she is immediately smacked again harder, because the point of the smack is to hurt.
But aren’t light smacks harmless?
A meta-analysis of research evidence has found many associations between “ordinary” physical punishment and negative outcomes for children – for example eroded parent-child relationships, weak internalisation of moral and social standards, increased child aggression, violence and antisocial behaviour and mental ill health in later life. Other research suggests that smacking may adversely affect children’s cognitive and sexual development.
Against the great mountain of adverse findings there are a few papers by committed pro-smackers, such as Robert Larzelere, which seek to show that “non-abusive” smacks do no harm to children. (“Non-abusive” smacks are defined as “about two open-hand swats to the buttocks when a parent is not angrily out of control” of children aged between 18 months and seven years). This small group of researchers also claim that smacking has poor outcomes because the worst behaved children are the most smacked children, a chicken and egg dilemma. However recent research now includes sophisticated controls to screen for existing antisocial behaviour in children, as well as for their family socioeconomic status, the level of emotional support and cognitive stimulation provided by parents, age of parents and children, race and family structure and the interactions among these variables. After these factors have been taken into account, the studies still show that physical punishment has a clear association with child aggression and antisocial behaviour.
In addition, research shows that physical punishment plays a large part in child protection cases. Studies in Canada and the United States show that most physical abuse is physical punishment, and this finding has been reflected in a couple of impressionistic surveys in the UK (although the presence of physical punishment in cases of serious abuse has been overlooked in all official studies and academic research).
For some parents smacking carries a documented risk of escalating into severe abuse. This is, ironically, because the only apparently “positive” aspect of physical punishment identified in the meta-analysis – that physical punishment can be effective in gaining the child’s immediate compliance – proves to be smacking’s most dangerous feature. Since children fail to learn how to behave in the long-term, they must be smacked again and harder when they repeat the misbehaviour. Many parents step back from the escalation trap. Unfortunately it tends to be parents in difficult circumstances who progress from smacks to more serious forms of violence.
At present UK law attempts to distinguish between criminal abuse and “safe smacks.” Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 entitles anyone acting in loco parentis to a child to raise the defence of “reasonable punishment” for a common assault on the child (unless explicitly barred from doing so). This law has failed to protect children for example it does not outlaw frequent, humiliating or painful punishment, nor risky blows to children’s heads and internal organs. Because of the existence of section 58, child-protection professionals have no power to tell parents they may not hit their children; children who are hit are told this is justified and lawful, and concerned bystanders feel they have no right to interfere in parents’ use of physical punishment.
Shouldn’t smacking be preserved for cases of last resort – for example to keep a child out of danger or to stop them harming someone?
In any event, it is hardly constructive to smack a child who is hurting another child. The adult may tell the child, “You must not hit people smaller than yourself” but the smack itself sends another message. Nor is it useful to hit a child who is putting himself or others in danger. The important thing is to stop the danger and to make sure the child fully understands that the dangerous behaviour must not be repeated. Smacking is likely to create a distraction from both these necessities, so the child remembers the pain and humiliation of the smack rather than the danger.
Of course parents are entitled to protect children and to control them physically – snatch them out of danger, carry them to bed, hold them during a tantrum and so forth – but the difference between this and smacking is obvious. Smacks don’t stop danger or protect people and property since they are generally inflicted after the event, as punishment and warning. If smacking was necessary to protect children, then thousands of children in the countries which have banned smacking would be injured or dead from terrible accidents.
You talk about children’s rights, but what about parents’ rights to bring up their children as they see fit? So long as children aren’t abused we should keep the nanny state out of the family home.
Since marital rape was outlawed in the early 1990s, physical punishment is the only form of violence in the family home in which the “nanny state” does not interfere.
Although once the beating of wives and servants was legal and socially acceptable, society agrees that these practices should be unlawful. Children are no longer seen as parents’ property. Like women and servants, we recognise they have human rights and are entitled to equal protection under the law.
Wouldn’t a ban on smacking lead to thousands of loving parents being criminalised for the occasional smack?
Parents who mildly smack their children would not be charged or prosecuted any more than an adult who mildly hits another adult is charged or prosecuted. Taking trivial assaults to courts is deemed to be a waste of police and prosecution time and they are not pursued (the de mimimis principle); prosecutions are not pursued at all unless deemed to be in the public interest. Where parents are concerned, action would be even less likely because the child’s best interests must also be taken into account – and prosecutions of parents are generally not in their children’s interests. Any private prosecution for assault must be reviewed by the Attorney General, who either takes it over as a public prosecution or discontinues it.
Nor would more families experience interventions by social services. The threshold for formal social service action on child protection would remain the same. Physical punishment which did not reach this threshold might be reported and followed up, as it is already, but would not lead to statutory interventions in family life – numbers of children in care would be expected to remain the same, or, hopefully, fall.
In 2010 the heads of organisations working with children and families, including the British Association of Social Workers, the Family and Parenting Institute and the Royal Colleges of Nursing and Paediatrics and Child Health, wrote a joint letter to local safeguarding children boards asking them to support law reform. It said: “Fears that minor smacking will be prosecuted are unfounded. The existing threshold of ‘significant harm’ for triggering investigations and other interventions would not change. Prosecutions only proceed when in the public interest and in the best interests of affected children. We who work in, or in support of, the child protection service know that this essential reform can be implemented in the best interests of the child and in the public interest.”
The example of New Zealand is useful here. Because of public anxieties stirred up by a small but well-funded opposition, the Government took pains to reassure that parents would not be unnecessarily prosecuted when smacking was banned in New Zealand in 2007. It undertook to ask the police to publish six-monthly data on physical punishment cases and the results show that, although there had been a rise in the reporting of violence, parents were not being prosecuted for “light smacking” and the police believe that the new law “has had a minimal impact on their business.” Where cases of severer punishments are prosecuted, guilty pleas or guilty findings do not result in harsh sentences – outcomes range from “supervision” to “discharge without conviction” or a requirement “to come before the court again if called upon over a nine month period”.
What is the point of having a law that you don’t enforce?
You compare hitting children to hitting women, but aren’t children completely different to women? Men and women are equals but we don’t have an equal relationship with children.
Parents have rights in relation to their children that they do not have in relation to anyone else. For example they can consent to painful medical treatment on their child’s behalf, they can carry children to bed and can strip off their clothes to change their nappies. All these activities would be assaults if imposed on an adult, but are a necessary and ordinary part of looking after a child.
This is quite different to saying that parents have a “right” to hit their children. A vaccination is a necessary painful assault, a smack is not. Elderly people with dementia, for example, are subjected to restraints and invasions of their dignity and physical integrity – they have their nappies changed, are bathed and must be physically prevented from wandering into danger, they are often managed and controlled by their carers in just the same way children are. But no-one says that the carer therefore has a right to hit them. This is because we recognise that, however diminished his or her capacities, an old person still has human rights.
This campaign is about children’s human right to respectful treatment. When we say smacking is disrespectful, this is not saying that children should never be punished or that they should be treated exactly like an adult. That would be ridiculous. But it is saying that children are people, not people-in-the-making, and are entitled like everyone else to protection from violence and to respect for their dignity.
My faith requires me to use corporal punishment: wouldn’t a law banning it breach my right to freedom of religion?
Some practitioners of Christianity, Islam and Judaism believe that the physical punishment of children is required by God, basing this belief on the six “spare the rod” verses in the Bible’s Book of Proverbs and on Sharia law. In the UK, these views are held only by a tiny minority of people and there are now many Christians, Jews and Muslims who maintain that hitting children is not an essential component of these faiths, backing this up with scholarly arguments. The sister organisation of CAU!, Churches for Non-Violence, provides resources to promote Christian arguments against corporal punishment and a forum for multi-faith activity on the issue.
White European people may want to ban physical punishment, but other cultures have much stronger traditions of physical punishment. Isn’t it discriminatory to tell minority cultures how to bring up their children?
In any event human rights are not culturally specific, they are universal. And since Latin American and African countries have passed laws banning physical punishment it cannot be said that this is a European movement.
Middle-class parents can give up smacking because they have time and space to use other forms of discipline, but what about poor parents who are struggling to cope in difficult circumstances?
Over the years CAU! has received letters from parents, including parents under high levels of stress, who have decided to give up smacking. They describe almost immediate improvement in their children’s behaviour and in family life. All parent educators advise parents not to smack.
No doubt in the old days many husbands beat their wives out of frustration because they were unemployed or living in degrading circumstances or were burdened by debt. Was this is justification for retaining the wife-beating law? No. Did it improve the marital relationships? No. Should law reform have waited until poverty was reduced or eradicated? No.
Parents often smack because they don’t know what else to do. Shouldn’t we support and educate them first, before we ban physical punishment?
Of course parents are entitled to lots of support. Many members of the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance disseminate information to parents on alternative ways to bring up children and our formal aims include the promotion of positive discipline.
As long as the law says that parents are entitled to hit children, children will continue to be hit. The main parent education organisations report that the current legality of smacking actively inhibits their work because it prevents them from delivering the simple message that parents must not hit their children. They are also naturally reluctant to spend time explaining a confusing law that upholds parents’ and others’ right to inflict “light” but painful punishment.
At the moment arguments about the pros and cons of smacking is simply a time-wasting red herring. Law reform would allow us to focus on what effective parenting actually involves.
Opinion polls show that most parents – most people – are opposed to a law prohibiting physical punishment. We live in a democracy: doesn’t the majority view count?
While it is true that parents have a difficult job bringing up children and are entitled to support from the state, it seems odd to give greater weight to the views of perpetrators than to the views of victims. And yet, when reviewing the new law on smacking, in 2007 the Labour Government chose to follow a poll of parents’ views rather than the evidence submitted by professionals working in child protection or the views of children themselves. Children have no vote, of course.
In fact, studies on parental views on smacking find these are conflicted and ambiguous. Most parents don’t want the practice to be criminalised and most admit that they have smacked their children, but only a few parents are prepared to claim smacking is a part of their disciplinary methods and many admit that it doesn’t help. Younger parents are far less likely to support the practice than the older generations, and its respectability is slowly waning.
An Ipsos-Mori poll commissioned by CAU! also shows that people’s views on criminalising smacking significantly change once they receive specific reassurances. Between a quarter and a third of respondents said they would no longer oppose a legal ban if it “would not lead to parents being prosecuted for trivial or minor acts of physical punishment”, if it “would not prevent parents from physically restraining their children if they were in a dangerous situation,” or if it was “accompanied by a big campaign to educate parents on how to discipline their children without smacking.” Parental views may thus be based on a misunderstanding of what a ban actually means.
If physical punishment is declining in use, why not just let it die of its own accord?
Even if we were sure that physical punishment would disappear of its own accord eventually, it would still be wrong to wait for this magic moment while allowing whole generations of children continue to suffer pain and humiliation. But there is no evidence that smacking will die of its own accord. While research in the UK shows that physical punishment is increasingly unacceptable to younger parents, international comparisons between countries where physical punishment is banned and those where it is not demonstrate that substantial change only occurs where the law prohibits its use.
One example is the abolition of school corporal punishment in the 1980s. In the years running up to the abolition of canings in state schools in 1986, an increasing number of schools voluntarily abandoned the use of corporal punishment and some people argued that it would disappear “naturally”. However a minority of schools stubbornly clung on to the cane until the law forced them to change, despite the evidence that pupil behaviour was worse in the caning schools than the non-caning ones.
Other public health campaigns – for example on drink-driving, seat belts or smoking in public places – all demonstrate that information, argument and cultural shifts have some impact but ultimately behaviour does not change while the law continues to permit these practices. Of course we recognise that changing the law does not automatically mean everyone obeys it. Law reform has to be accompanied by energetic measures to publicise and explain it, but changing the law is the first essential step.
Many young people support physical punishment. Shouldn’t we listen to them?
If you ask young people of secondary school-age about smacking, however, their views may replicate their parents and the adult world. Some strongly support abolition and defend the rights of younger children, but many other young people think there is nothing wrong with smacking. (Not surprisingly, a disturbing number also think there is nothing wrong with hitting their girlfriend or boyfriend if he or she has behaved badly to them).
Before domestic violence was made illegal, many women supported the right of husbands to physically discipline their wives but you would be hard-pressed to find any woman in this country who now supports wife-beating.
Children say they prefer to be smacked because it’s quick and clean, with no unpleasant aftermath. Don’t they have a point?
In fact parents are deluding themselves if they think smacking is a quick clean punishment – it may seem to be, but there is no guarantee that a smack does children (or parents) no harm. Of course some children are smacked without damage, just as some people smoke heavily without apparent adverse effects, but this doesn’t mean that smoking is harmless – see the FAQ above But aren’t light smacks harmless?
We have huge problems with juvenile crime, riots and indiscipline in schools. Surely the last thing we need is to go soft on children?
There is absolutely no evidence that young people who commit offences, or who participated in the 2011 UK riots, or who are disruptive in schools, were not smacked by their parents. In fact it is tempting to bet that every single child who ends up in custody for a violent offence or is excluded for violent behaviour at school has experienced physical punishment. When caning was banned in state schools in the 1980s, the Thatcher Government commissioned an enquiry into discipline in schools which highlighted the evidence that, before the ban, standards of behaviour were worse in the schools that used corporal punishment than those that did not.
Comparisons between Scandinavian countries and the UK as regards children’s anti-social or self-harming behaviour (committing offences, violent behaviour, drug and alcohol misuse, school disruption and truancy, teenage pregnancy, mental health problems etc) show the UK having consistently higher levels in every category. We do not claim this is a result of the physical punishment bans in Scandinavia – multiple factors, including far greater welfare support for Scandinavian parents, are responsible – but it is at least clear that a ban does not create badly behaved children.
You talk about Sweden, but I’ve heard that Sweden has proportionately more child deaths from abuse than the UK and that there has been more abuse since the ban.
In fact, there is evidence that a legal ban on smacking results in a reduction of child abuse. Children Are Unbeatable! hesitates to make this claim because causality is almost impossible to prove where randomised control trials are neither feasible nor ethical and where many complex social factors are interacting. It is striking that in Sweden parental use and approval of physical punishment has steadily decreased since the first legal measures were taken to ban smacking in 1957 – when over 90% of parents hit their children – to the most recent figures in 2007, showing parental use of physical punishment was now between 2% and 10%. The findings also reveal a sharp decline in more forceful forms of punishment, such as punching or use of implements.
If smacking is banned, won’t that lead to children being treated in more horrible ways, such as public humiliation or locking them up?
Smacking is part of human nature – all mammals cuff their young to control them.
But if, for arguments sake, hitting children was a part of human nature, this would not justify its use. There is evidence that rape, xenophobia and environmental despoliation are also “part of human nature”, but it is not a part that we accept or encourage. We are smarter than other mammals, we do not need to behave like animals.
Some pro-smackers say hitting children is part of the physicality of parenting, like kissing, cuddling and rough-house play. This is a disgraceful argument. The deliberate infliction of pain for punishment has no relationship to these delightful aspects of the parent-child relationship.
Why is it so difficult for us to ban smacking?
The two main reasons are first that banning smacking is seen as a vote-loser by successive governments and therefore to be avoided, and second, that smacking is such a fundamental part of our cultural and psychological programming we have difficulty in seeing that it is harmful and wrong.
As regards the first reason, it is true that no country has banned physical punishment on the back of public support. Each of the forty-four governments taking this step have had to lead public opinion not follow it. But a ban has never resulted in political disaster. Once it is enacted, and parents find out that the scaremongering is unfounded and that life improves without smacking, they soon come round to the idea.
As for the second reason, most of us were first smacked by our parents when we were very young. We then had two choices, either to think that our loved parent was wrong to hit us, or that we were wrong and deserved to be hit. Naturally most make the second choice and the legitimacy of smacking becomes internalised and unexamined. Public support for physical punishment thus tends to be more emotional than intellectual, which is why the strong arguments for prohibition are not heard.
This can be demonstrated by imagining a law that supported mild common assaults such as making children stand in contorted positions or slapping them across the face or rubbing chilli powder on their lips. Would we support such a law? Of course not. And yet these are quite normal punishments in some parts of the world and do not cause children more pain or humiliation than being smacked on the bottom or legs. We instinctively object to them and not to the smack, because the smack is a part of our cultural and psychological programming.
How can I support this campaign when I smacked my own children?
Our aim is not to take the moral high ground or to guilt-trip parents (let alone prosecute more of them or take their children away). We just want society to move on from hitting children, as it has moved on from hitting women or servants or animals.
Many parents regret having smacked their children but feel troubled at the idea they should be “criminalised” for their actions. Yet these parents may well have committed mild assaults on other adults – pushed or slapped someone in an argument, for example. They are untroubled by the idea they have committed a criminal offence, in fact they would indignantly reject a proposal that such pushes or slaps should be legal. Our society accepts that even the mildest assault on another person must be technically unlawful, except where the person is a child.