The experience of countries that have outlawed all physical punishment


Sweden was the first country to explicitly prohibit all forms of physical punishment, in 1979, and has inevitably attracted the most attention. 


When the law was passed in 1979 Swedish critics predicted that the ban would lead to large numbers of parents being branded as criminals and that it breached rights to religious freedom and to respect for private and family life.  The government therefore undertook to ensure that the new legislation achieved its intentions, including commissioning regular independent research to discover the impact of the ban.  In 2009 the Swedish government published a bookletNever Violence – Thirty Years on from Sweden’s Abolition of Corporal Punishment which summarises this research. The findings overwhelmingly confirm that the ban has been followed by positive results. 


1. Changes in Swedish attitudes and practice     Although smacking does not entirely disappear (any more than other forms of domestic violence disappear when made unlawful), both children and parents in Sweden report a steady decrease in the use of physical punishment over the three decades, particularly where severe or frequent punishment is involved, and also parallel changes in attitude, so that parental support for physical punishment is now below 10%:


“In 1981, two years after the anti-smacking ban was introduced – and following an unprecedented publicity campaign – more than 90 per cent of Swedish families were aware that the law had changed. But did the campaign also produce changes in values and actual behaviour? The Government Committee on Child Abuse concluded in its report “Child Assault – Prevention and Action” [2001] that most preschool children in the 1960s had been smacked by their parents once or several times per year, and that one third were smacked regularly.  Figures from the 1970s indicate that less than 50 per cent of children experienced smacking during this era. During the 1980s this figure fell further to around one third. After 2000, data provided by parents suggests it is now down to just a few per cent. Not only has the number of children who are smacked fallen, but those who are still smacked experience this less often and only rarely with implements (1–1.5 per cent).


Not until 1994 were children themselves asked to say how often they were smacked at home. In 1994, 35 per cent said they had been smacked at some previous point in time, and after 2000 this figure has fallen considerably. One in ten of those who had been smacked said they were smacked regularly, and the same ratio said they were smacked with implements. Thus, schoolchildren born around 1990 say they are smacked considerably less often and with less force than children born ten years earlier.


The Swedish Government attributes these changes in attitudes to a number of factors, not just the smacking ban – for example Sweden’s highly developed welfare system, anti- and post-natal support for children, universal daycare provision and greater equality between the sexes.  It also points out that surveys on parental views are not necessarily an accurate gauge of parental practice, but that increasingly:


“[the research] shows a narrowing gap between the number of parents who are positive to physical punishment and the number who actually inflict physical punishment. In the 1960s, there was a wide gap between what respondents considered to be right and how they actually behaved: many thought it was wrong to use physical punishment but did so anyway. As time went by, people learned new ways to raise their children, gaining new insight and experiences that enabled them to dismantle old codes of behaviour. For every decade that passed, fewer children were subjected to physical punishment – and more parents stopped doing what they believed was wrong.”


2.  Serious assaults on Swedish children   A decline in severe abuse requiring state intervention is obviously one of the most desired outcomes of this reform. However, given that all countries’ child protection systems only address the tip of the iceberg of physical child abuse, this is a particularly tricky area to research.  The Swedish Government reports:


“Interviews with parents in 1980, 2000 and 2006 reveal a sharp decline in the more serious forms of physical punishment, such as punching or use of implements. This means that forceful punishments with the potential to cause serious injury have decreased substantially…


“Cases of suspected assault on children reported to the police have increased since the early 1980s, rising by 190 per cent between 1990 and 1999 (Children and Assault – A Report on Physical Punishment and Other Abuse in Sweden in the Late 1990s). Opponents of law reform have claimed that this increase in reporting reflects an actual increase in assaults and use these figures to suggest that banning physical punishment increases child abuse. But this increase in reporting reflects the fact that tolerance of assaults on children has decreased, so people are more willing to inform the authorities about suspected cases. Violence that was once a family secret is more likely to be reported today because we are less likely to excuse or minimize instances of physical abuse of children by parents or others close to them.


Contrary to what the law’s critics predicted in 1979 – and contrary to what today’s opponents of law reform continue to predict – the proportion of reported assaults that are prosecuted has not increased. This is partly due to the fact that it is extremely difficult to obtain convictions for crimes committed within the four walls of a home where there are no witnesses other than the perpetrator and the child. The legal system does not allow a lower burden of proof in cases of assault on children than in other criminal cases.   But the fact that only a small proportion of child assault reports lead to prosecution does not mean that children and parents do not receive support or protection. Social services investigate all allegations of child maltreatment, assess the family’s need for support and the child’s need for protection and provide a range of supportive and preventive measures.”


3. Juvenile violence and delinquency   The Government report includes official statistics on youth crime because of claims being made that “Swedish youth have been getting into more trouble since physical punishment was banned.”  Statistics show that there has been a decrease in youth crime generally in Sweden since the mid-1990s, though violent offences have remained relatively constant.  The report also notes the research on risk factors leading to criminality, showing that poor or violent parenting significantly increase the risk of children engaging in criminal activity. 


Academic controversy over Sweden

The Swedish Government’s report’s reference to “today’s opponents of law reform” includes a few academics, of which the most vocal is Professor Robert Larzelere of the University of Nebraska.  Larzelere has written extensively on the Swedish ban and, in particular, has criticised the findings of Professor Joan Durrant, University of Ontario.  Durrant, whose review of research published in 2000 –  mostly using official government figures – showed that the ban, directly or indirectly resulted in benign outcomes including improved child protection.[1]  In 2004 Professor Larzelere published a critique of these findings claiming that in fact Swedish children were suffering more violence as a result of the ban and that: “The decline in acceptability of smacking in Sweden occurred prior to their 1979 smacking ban and, if anything, has reversed since then. Their rates of physical child abuse and criminal assaults by minors against minors have increased at least five- or six-fold since the smacking ban. Finally, their programs to support childrearing include removing children from their homes far more often than in most other countries.”[2]


In 2005 Durrant produced a 40-page booklet specifically refuting every one of Larzelere’s claims. She points out that reporting of child abuse rose but not abuse itself, in that there was no increase in reports of aggravated (i.e. more serious) assaults and that a study by the Swedish National Crime Prevention Council concluded the increase seen in reporting did not reflect a true increase in violence against children; that his claim about the numbers of children removed from home is based on a serious misreading of 1982 care figures, which in any event declined by 20% over the next decade and that reports of child on child assaults can be shown to have risen at the point when zero tolerance for school bullying was introduced, rising and falling in correlation with school terms and holidays.  She also challenged his objectivity on this issue in general.[3]  Larzelere then posted a response to her refutation, but Durrant said she was tired of repeating herself and would not engage with him again.[4]    [Will take in new Larzelere research in new section on “the defenders of physical punishment”)


Also quoted by opponents of the Swedish reform is UNICEF’s Innocenti Research Centre’s 2003 publication Report Card 5: A League Table of Child Maltreatment in Rich Nations.  This report shows a table of the annual number of deaths from maltreatment among children under the age of 15 years averaged over a five year period and expressed per 100,000 children in the age group, in which Sweden has more such deaths on average (0.5) than the UK (0.4).   However when deaths of “indeterminate intent” are factored in, the UK slips to seven places below Sweden. UNICEF is frank in confessing that both tables are suspect, noting that while the first table is plainly inaccurate, the revised table also has its flaws: “It may, for example, punish countries that are more sensitive to the child abuse issue and more zealous in reporting it (for example those countries in which suspicious child deaths are more carefully investigated and more likely to be classified under ‘undetermined cause’ as opposed to ‘accident’),” which is clearly relevant to Sweden which has a population highly sensitive to all forms of child abuse.  The report also notes that child deaths are not necessarily the result of long-term maltreatment: “A review of almost 100 child deaths in Sweden, for example, has shown that more than half involved a mother or father who killed his or her children before committing suicide.”  In other words most non-accidental deaths  of Swedish children are not linked to physical punishment.  In only a tiny minority of such deaths in the UK have the parents killed themselves.[5] 


New Zealand

New Zealand is the only English-speaking country to have banned, in 2007, after fierce debates and public demonstrations which no doubt would also occur in the UK (funds from US defenders of physical punishment supported the opposition to a ban in New Zealand and could be expected to do so in the UK).  The Government’s research into prosecutions is dealt with below, but it should be noted that – despite a citizen-initiated referendum in 2009 against the smacking ban – surveys are showing a decline in the acceptability and use of physical punishment since the ban, and the new Conservative government decided to keep it.[6]


Because of public anxieties, the New Zealand Government took pains to reassure that parents would not be unnecessarily criminalised.  The law therefore states that, while there is no defence to any form of physical punishment:


To avoid doubt, it is affirmed that the Police have the discretion not to prosecute complaints against a parent of a child or person in the place of a parent of a child in relation to an offence involving the use of force against a child, where the offence is considered to be so inconsequential that there is no public interest in proceeding with a prosecution.[7]


The Government also undertook to ask the police to collect data on responses to parents under the 2007 Act.  The police have produced six periodic reports on this question and in November 2009 the Chief Executive of the Ministry for Social Development and Employment, as required under statute, reported to the Minister that the police data showed that, although there had been a rise in the reporting of violence generally, parents had not been prosecuted for “light smacking.”  He comments that the police believe that the new law “has had a minimal impact on their business” and there has been no change in the reporting of smacking since it was enacted.  He notes that twelve acts of what the police call “minor physical discipline” were prosecuted, but comments that in his view “these could not reasonably be described as ‘minor acts’” because they involved, for example, the child being punched in the face or hit multiple times or assaulted in anger.[8] 


Other countries

Apart from Sweden, little research has been undertaken in the other 46 countries that have banned all forms of physical punishment, aside from some prevalence studies. 


Although support for physical punishment is everywhere declining, no country has enacted a ban on the back of favourable public opinion.  The others have consistently introduced prohibition of smacking against the majority view of parents and the general public, though these views have been shown to change quite rapidly after prohibition, particularly among younger parents.  A ban therefore requires leadership from Government, rather than reactive policy based on popular polls.


As regards other European countries, a study carried out between October and December 2007 examined five European countries: Sweden, Austria and Germany, which have prohibited corporal punishment, and France and Spain which had not prohibited corporal punishment at the time of the study (Spain prohibited all corporal punishment in December 2007).[9] Five thousand parents (1,000 in each nation) were interviewed about their use of and attitudes towards corporal punishment. 


Nearly all forms of corporal punishment were used significantly less in countries which had prohibited than in those where corporal punishment was still lawful. Take in graph. For example, while over half of French and Spanish parents had “spanked” their child’s bottom, only 4% of Swedish parents and around 17% of Austrian and German parents had done so. Alarmingly, nearly half of Spanish and French parents said they had used severe corporal punishment (a resounding slap on the face, beating with an object or severe beating) on more than one occasion, compared with 14% of Austrian and German parents and 3% of Swedish parents. Parents in nations where corporal punishment was prohibited at the time of the study showed less acceptance of justifications for corporal punishment: 20% of Spanish and 27% of French parents agreed that “a slap on the face is sometimes the best/quickest way to deal with a situation”, compared with 15% of German, 13% of Austrian, and 4% of Swedish parents.

From this survey one can, again, be confident that a smacking ban contributes to a reduction of violence to children, including severe violence that everyone agrees is likely to impair children’s welfare.

[1] Durrant, J. E., (2000) A Generation Without Smacking: The impact of Sweden’s ban on physical punishment, London: Save the Children UK    

[2] Larzelere, R E (2004) Sweden’s smacking ban: more harm than good, Families First and The Christian Institutute

[3] Durrant, J. E.  (2005) Law Reform and Corporal Punishment in Sweden: Response to Robert Larzelere, The Christian Institute and Families First, University of Manitoba

[4] Larzelere R. E. (2005)  Differentiating Evidence from Advocacy in Evaluating Sweden’s Spanking Ban: A Response to Joan Durrant’s Critique of my Booklet “Sweden’s Smacking Ban: More Harm Than Good” Larzelere/rdurrunl.75.pdf

[5] NSPCC stats

[6] The 2009 referendum question was “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” Although it received a large majority  of “no” votes, the confusing and presumptive wording of the question was widely criticised.  In September 2010 the far right party (ACT) tabled for a bill to repeal the anti-smacking law, which was defeated by 115 to five (the five ACT MPs).

[7] ref

[8] Hughes P, Chief Executive Ministry of Social Development  (2009) Report to the Minister for Social Development and Employment: pursuant to section 7(2) of the Crimes (substituted section 59) Act, New Zealand Ministry of Social Development

[9] Bussmann, K. D. (2009) The Effect of Banning Corporal Punishment in Europe: A Five-Nation Comparison, Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

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