The prevalence of physical punishment

Estimating the extent of physical punishment in the UK is problematic given it is a subject on which the perpetrators may well falsify their practice (even to themselves) and the victims are often too young to provide an accurate account.


Three large-scale studies have been conducted on parental physical punishment.  The first took place in the 1990s and was commissioned by the government.[1]  This found that babies and toddlers were particularly vulnerable to being hit by parents: 75% of babies aged up to one year had been smacked by their mothers; 52% of one year-olds were smacked weekly or more often by their parents, 38% had been smacked more than once a week, and three were reportedly hit or smacked daily or more often; 14% had been smacked with “moderate” severity. Overall, 91% of children had been hit, one in five with an implement, and a third at some time experiencing “severe” punishment. 


The second study, published in 2003, found that 58% of parents self-reported using minor physical punishment within the last year, 9% severe (none admitted to using “very severe” punishment over this period). Parents also reported on physical punishment during the child’s lifetime: 71% minor (e.g. smacking and slapping), 16% severe, 1% very severe.[2]


More recently a 2009 survey carried out by the NSPCC of 2,275 children aged 11-17 and 1,761 adults aged 18-24 backs up the picture that there is widespread severe physical punishment and mistreatment of children, with 7% of the secondary-school age children reporting being  hit, kicked, beaten or attacked with a weapon by an adult (over half of whom were parents). The NSPCC pointed out that this represents far more children than are on child protection plans, who in total number only 46,000.[3]


It is clear from this that most children in the UK experience physical punishment and that an alarming number experience serious assaults, many more than come to the attention of the authorities. ChildLine’s figures give a small indication of what is happening now.[4]  Physical abuse by adults is, consistently, the third most common reason that children call (after bullying and family tensions) – over 20,000 calls on the subject a year, with more than one in three of those children reporting that they had been hit with implements, bruised or wounded and some saying they “deserved” being severely assaulted.  These calls can only represent the tip of a huge iceberg. Only 4% of children calling ChildLine are below eight years, the age-group surveys show are the most subjected to physical punishment.  Moreover only 60% of children calling ChildLine manage to get through to a counsellor, owing to pressure on the lines.  And of course children must first of all believe they will get help on the issue from ChildLine.  Given the legality and social acceptability of physical punishment they are more likely to suffer it in silence.

Some Ministers in the Labour government pointed hopefully to findings which suggest that fewer parents are smacking their children these days.[5]  While it is clear that physical punishment has become a less respectable practice, particularly in higher socio-economic groups, there is absolutely no evidence to support the belief that physical punishment will wither away of its own accord while remaining the legal right of parents – any more than other harmful but commonplace practices, like drink-driving or smoking in public places, stop of their own accord.  As it was with school corporal punishment, where the better schools abandoned the practice but a number determinedly carried on caning until the law prohibited its use, so with parental physical punishment.  It is those parents who most need to stop smacking who will not, unless unambiguously required by law to do so. 

[1] Nobes G and Smith M (1997), Physical punishment of children in two-parent families. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2(2), 271–281; also summary presented as a poster by Dr Marjorie Smith at the Fifth European Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect (International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect), Oslo, May 1995

[2] Ghate D, Hazel N, Creighton S,  Finch S and Field J (2003),  The national study of parents, children and discipline in Britain: key findings, ESRC

[3] NSPCC press release February 15 2011

[4] Most recent ChildLine figures are for the period April 2008-March 2009, but their annual analyses show very consistent numbers of calls on this issue.

[5] In particular, the survey of 1882 parents conducted as part of the review of section 58 which showed that  smacking is less likely to be used by parents whose children are currently under 18 than those whose children are now adults, and that younger parents tend to hold a more negative view of smacking.

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