The views of parents and other adults

British parents, and the general public, have consistently expressed opposition to proposals to criminalise mild forms of physical punishment, particularly people who were themselves physically punished as children.[1]  This has been the experience of all countries proposing to outlaw all forms of physical punishment and the measure is thus one that requires a degree of leadership from government – see Countries that have banned all physical punishment.  However research shows that views rapidly change after the law is reformed. Moreover, the surveys described below suggest public opinion changes when people fully understand the purpose and effect of a total ban.


The then Government’s decision not to amend section 58 after the review in 2007 relied almost exclusively on a survey of parents’ opposition to a complete ban, because the responses to the consultation showed those working with children and families were overwhelmingly critical of section 58, as were children in a parallel survey.[2]


The Ipsos-MORI survey commissioned by the Government examined a statistically representative sample of 1,822 parents in England and Wales (including 618 parents of adult children) on their disciplinary methods and practice and their views on the effectiveness and acceptability of smacking and whether the law should allow it. [3]  


The survey found only 24% of parents said they used physical punishment to manage their child’s behaviour, however this number rose to 58% when asked directly if they had ever smacked their children.  As regards law reform, the survey asked two different versions of the same question: 59% agreed that the law should allow parents to smack their children and 67% disagreed that there should be a complete ban on parents smacking their children. The survey notes that this finding did not apply to the under-25 year-old parents, who were evenly split on the question: 39% thought the law should allow smacking against 36% who though it should not (the latter figure was 15% for respondents over 65).


A year later Children Are Unbeatable! commissioned an Ipsos-MORI survey of 1,820 adults on whether there should be a complete ban on smacking, which also found a majority, 53%, opposed to a complete ban.  However the numbers of those who were opposed or half-hearted about a ban significantly diminished (by 27%, 25% and 29% respectively) when the following provisos were added: “If a complete ban on smacking would not lead to parents being prosecuted for trivial or minor acts of physical punishment…”; “If a complete ban would not prevent parents from physically restraining their children if they were in a dangerous situation…” and “If a complete ban was accompanied by a big campaign to educate parents on how to discipline their children without smacking.”  Facts about other countries, professional support within the UK for full prohibition and our human rights obligations also swayed views, but to a lesser extent (and it should also be noted that a small proportion said they would be more likely to support a ban after hearing the additional caveats and facts).[4]


Like the 2007 Government poll, this survey found that under-25 year-olds were much more sympathetic to law reform than the older respondents: 42% either strongly supported or tended to support a complete ban on smacking, as opposed to 34% not in support.

While relying on parents’ lack of support for law reform to justify its position, the then Government took heart from the survey findings that suggested attitudes were changing and that younger parents were less likely to smack.[5]  But in truth this and other surveys on parental views have found that parental attitudes are profoundly muddled. Although parents in the 2007 survey did not want smacking criminalized, four out of five did not like smacking or thought it was wrong. In September 2010 Children and Society published a literature review of 138 articles and recent surveys of parental views on physical punishment (including the 2007 survey and a 2008 survey undertaken in Northern Ireland.)[6] The researchers concluded that the Government had perhaps been too quick to rely on parental opposition to a smacking ban:


“The DCSF (2007) report itself recognised that although many parents disagree with smacking as a method of discipline, many do not think that the law should prevent parents from smacking. However, the review did not analyse this inconsistency any further, implicitly suggesting that parental views in this area outweigh all other considerations.  Examination of the evidence illustrates the relative weakness for continuing to resist an outright ban on physical punishment on this basis.”


They argue that the Government should reconsider its position in the light of the inconsistencies and ambivalence identified by the evidence, which were summarised as follows:


“Some parents do not believe [physical punishment] to be acceptable but report using it; others report it as acceptable but do not use it themselves. While the experience of using physical discipline is likely to have influenced some parents to have negative attitudes towards it, it seems that many parents continue to use physical discipline as a ‘last resort’, despite the fact they do not believe it to be effective or have positive outcomes for children. Lack of parental support for a complete ban on physical punishment must also be viewed alongside the fact that a majority of parents believe that using it is upsetting to both themselves and their children and rarely results in increased obedience, respect or teaching right from wrong. High levels of emotional arousal, stress and frustration also suggest that the context in which such discipline is administered is often far from controlled.    A comprehensive review of the literature on parental views of physical punishment shows that parents are often ambivalent about physical discipline, do not view it as an optimal method of behaviour management and are more prone to smack when stressed or angry. Nonetheless, many parents continue to smack despite the fact they do not believe it to be effective.”


The effect of positive messages against smacking – for example from governments’  public recognition of children’s human right to equal protection from assault or from evidence about the potential harm to children’s development – can be seen in a recent survey of parental opinion in Ireland.  In 2010, Ireland’s Minister for Children and Youth Affairs commissioned a survey of 1,353 parents of children under 18.  This found that only 34% of parents said that smacking should remain legal while 42% said it should become illegal.[7] 64% agreed that “smacking is not necessary to bring up a well-behaved child” and 80% reported feeling guilty or sorry after the last time they had smacked their child.  The difference between these views and those of parents in the UK can perhaps be explained by the fact that a decision on a collective complaint under the European Social Charter found Ireland to be in violation of the Charter because its law still allowed “reasonable chastisement”. In response, the Irish Government publicly committed itself to reforming the law to ban all physical punishment (without setting itself a deadline). In Ireland there is also heightened appreciation of the vulnerability of children following the church scandals relating to physical (as well as sexual) abuse.[8]

[1] See, for example, Lunkenheimer, E. S, Kittler, J. E., Olson, S. L. & Kleinberg, F. (2006) The Intergenerational Transmission of Physical Punishment: Differing Mechanisms in Mothers’ and Fathers’ Endorsement?, Journal of Family Violence, 21:509-519

[2] Department of Schools, Families and Children, Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 Review (consultation) Analysis of responses to the consultation October 2007 and Sherbert Research A study into children’s views of physical discipline and punishment, October 2007

[3] Ipsos-MORI A study into the views of parents on the physical punishment of children for the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) October 2007

[4] Ipsos MORI Exploring public attitudes to a complete ban on smacking children, (2008) Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance

[5] One example given in support was that 52% in the Ipsos-MORI survey thought it was “sometimes necessary to smack a naughty child” whereas an ONS survey conducted in 1998 showed 88% agreeing with this statement, though it should be noted the ONS survey was of the general population, not just parents.

[6] Bunting L, Webb M A and Healy J, In two minds? Parental attitudes toward physical punishment in the UK, Children & Society Vol 24 (2010), pp 359-370.

[7] A M Halpenny, E Nixon and D Watson, Parents’ Perspectives on Parenting Styles and Disciplining

Children (2010) Office of the Minister of Children and Youth Affairs

[8] Reference for Irish ruling

Recent news

Report calls for prohibition in Scotland

Date: December 2015

A systematic review of research literature on physical punishment, jointly commissioned by Barnardo’s Scotland, Children 1st, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland and NSPCC Scotland was published in November

. . . Read more

Corporal punishment to be banned in madrassas

Date: December 2015

On November 27 the Government published plans to prohibit corporal punishment in all part-time educational settings, including madrassas (see: consultation). The proposals also aim to prevent children being “radicalised” in madrassas...

. . . Read more