Physically punishing children is banned in 52 countries around the world, with Scotland planning to follow suit this summer and a public consultation in Wales recently completed.
England, Australia and the USA, however, all still allow children (but not adults) to be hit in certain circumstances. Now experts from those three countries say they should end the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’. They say reducing the number of cases of child abuse must begin with a clear message from society that physical punishment of children, whatever the circumstances, is unacceptable.
Professor Andrew Rowland, Consultant in Paediatric Emergency Medicine at North Manchester General Hospital and Honorary Professor (Paediatrics) in the School of Health and Society at the University of Salford worked with Felicity Gerry QC, a barrister and Professor of Legal Practice at Deakin University in Australia, and Marcia Stanton, Senior Injury Prevention Specialist at Phoenix Children’s Hospital in the USA, on a recently published research paper summarising why physical punishment doesn’t work and should be stopped.
Their work has fed into the Welsh government consultation on changing the law to prohibit physical punishment of children; and into a similar consultation in Scotland.
Professor Rowland said: “Physical punishment of children is currently illegal in the UK if it leaves a mark on a child or an implement, such as a cane or belt, is used. But it remains legal for a parent to physically punish a child with a slap or smack so long as no actual bodily harm is caused.
“This is inconsistent with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects children from all forms of physical violence and maltreatment.
“In the UK the NSPCC reports that one in 14 children has been physically abused.
“We also know from decades of research that physically punishing children makes it more, not less, likely that they will be defiant and aggressive in the future. Physical punishment is associated with poorer quality parent-child relationships and with increased childhood mental health problems.
“Quite simply, it doesn’t work and it’s wrong. It doesn’t teach children why their behaviour was wrong or what they should do instead and it tells them that it is OK to use physical force and aggression against other people.
“Allowing physical punishment of children also makes it very difficult for clinicians to assess if a child is at risk – it is harder to identify whether children are routinely abused or are largely well cared for.”
He said that despite some public opposition to a change in the law, Parliament should recognise that children are at risk of significant harm and take action so that children are protected from violence.
Marcia Stanton, MSW, Senior Program Specialist, Center for Family Health and Safety, Strong Families, Phoenix Children’s Hospital, said: “Growing research documents the long-term negative impacts of adverse childhood experiences. As we continue to better understand how adversity, including physical punishment, impacts the health and well-being of children, it’s crucial we educate the public, including parents and lawmakers.”
“Spanking is shown to be associated with an increased likelihood of mental health and behavioral problems in adulthood. For this reason, it is critical we help parents avoid physical punishment, and instead use safe and effective ways to discipline and guide their children.”
Felicity Gerry QC said: “A global move to recognise it is not reasonable to physically punish children (together with suitable prosecution policy) should not lead to otherwise reasonable parents being affected. In addition to child protection, removal of the defence of reasonable chastisement will assist clinicians in identifying children suffering or at risk of abuse.”
- The paper Time to end the defence of reasonable chastisement in the UK, USA and Australia is published in the International Journal of Children’s Rights.