The views of children

It is important to remember that the peak age for being smacked in the UK is between one and seven years and that the use of physical punishment declines steeply thereafter. It is also important to understand how social acceptability of physical punishment becomes internalised in childhood.  Confronted at an early age by a choice between thinking their parent has done something wrong or thinking their parent is right and they deserve to be hit, children generally choose the latter and so are psychologically programmed to condone the use of physical punishment. Thus the views of teenagers often become more or less identical to that of the adult population.[1]


Four studies have been conducted across the UK into the views of young children, beginning with a study of 76 English children aged between five and seven.[2]  Unlike many parents, these children overwhelmingly identified smacking as hitting that is physically painful. Almost every child disapproved of smacking, and saw it as something that adults often regretted, and which made the children upset, angry and sometimes wanting to smack someone else.  The answers also vividly bring home the fact that if you are very small, even a “light tap” from an adult will be a shocking event:


“It feels like someone banged you with a hammer” (Girl, aged 5)

“It hurts and it’s painful inside – it’s like breaking your bones’ (Girl, aged 7)

“Like someone’s punched you or kicked you or something” (Boy, aged 6)

“It’s like when you’re in the sky and you’re falling to the ground and you just hurt yourself” (Boy, aged 7)


Children Are Unbeatable! undertook a small survey of the views of children under the age of five, in 2009, which found similar attitudes.[3]  Smacking was “bad” and “nasty” and made the children sad, or aggressive:


“If children smacks their mum, they smack them! If  their dad smacks them, they smack the dad!” (Boy aged 4)


In its 2007 review of Section 58, the then government sought the views of children.  In-depth interviews were held with 64 children aged 4-16, two-thirds of whom reported personal experience of being smacked.[4] The government’s overview report of the exercise reported the following findings:


“Many children accepted that discipline and punishment were an important part of growing up and whilst it was often unpleasant it was necessary. However, most felt that smacking was out of place in modern childhood, and that other punishments were more effective in bringing about reflection, changing behaviour and supporting good and close relationships with parents. Whilst smacking was the most feared form of punishment, it was the emotional distress and humiliation that can be caused by smacking, rather than any physical pain, which children feared.”[5]


However the research itself also reported:


“The principal factor in determining a child’s attitudes to smacking was whether the child had been smacked and how he/she had experienced it. In this study, this factor appeared to have the greatest influence on children’s opinions of the issue, as clear differences emerged between those who had been smacked and those who had not. All children who had not been smacked rejected it an acceptable form of punishment, while many who had been smacked felt that smacking a child was acceptable.


“Smacking was generally considered to be the most ‘severe’ type of discipline, because it was physical in nature and was from a parent to a child… Some children associated smacking with feelings of fear, shame and anger. These children were often not only dealing with parental disapproval and disappointment, but with parents losing control and their temper. Smacking for them occurred regularly, sometimes for no reason and with no clear or considered dialogue. Children who experienced smacking in this way appeared to be more emotionally distant from their parents."


The report also noted that the children who experienced smacking regularly, including into the teenage years, were noticeably more aggressive – “a part of these children’s identities” –  frequently getting into fights at school and saying they would use smacking as a form of punishment if they were to have children (unlike the majority who said they would not use it on their children).


In 2006, the final report was published of the UN Secretary-General’s Study on Violence against Children, the first comprehensive global study into the nature and extent of the problem. The Independent Expert leading the Study, Professor Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, wrote in the report:


“Throughout the study process, children have consistently expressed the urgent need to stop all this violence. Children testify to the hurt – not only physical, but ‘the hurt inside’ – which this violence causes them, compounded by adult acceptance, even approval of it. Governments need to accept that this is indeed an emergency, although it is not a new emergency. Children have suffered violence at the hands of adults unseen and unheard for centuries. But now that the scale and impact of violence against children is becoming visible, they cannot be kept waiting any longer for the effective protection to which they have an unqualified right.”

[1] See for example, S Sharpe, From fear to respect: Young people’s views on violence (2004) National Children’s Bureau. This looked at the views of young people aged 11-16, many of whom believed physical punishment was necessary for younger children. Where older children were concerned, a number considered harsh physical punishment an appropriate sanction for serious wrongdoing such as breaking windows, stealing or mugging.  

[2] C Willow and T Hyder   It hurts you inside – children talking about smacking (1998) National Children’s Bureau and Save the Children.  See also: E Cutting It doesn’t sort anything: A report on the views of children and young people about the use of physical punishment (2002) Save the Children, Scotland; G Horgan It’s a hit, not a “smack”: A booklet about what children think about being hit or smacked by adults  Save the Children Northern Ireland and A Crowley and C Vulliamy Listen Up! Children Talk: About Smacking Save the Children Wales;

[3] “I don’t get sad, only when  my mum smacks me.” Young children give advice about family discipline

Elinor Milne, Children are Unbeatable! Alliance, 2009

[4] Sherbert Research A study into children’s views of physical discipline and punishment, October 2007

[5] Department of Children, Schools and Families Review of Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 October 2007

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