When is it right to Smack a Child?

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org“Spare the rod and spoil the child”

A punishment cane from 1973Last week I received an odd request from a local radio station. They phoned to ask if I would take part in an on-air discussion about parenting issues – I was more than a little bemused. Having no experience of parenting (babysitting doesn’t count) – I felt ill qualified. But I simply couldn’t resist the temptation to indulge in a fiery radio debate: In the league table of dinner party topics to avoid, the rights and wrongs of parenting ranks at the top. (possibly only just pipped to the post by a discussion of body odour problems).

The latest progeny-raising hot-potato to leap out of the pram is that of spanking: should smacking, hitting and spanking our precious bambinos be outlawed? Advocates and apologists are so irreconcilable – it would seem to be easier to get Richard Dawkins to convert to Catholicism than to get parents to agree.

The Welsh Assembly have just decided to ban smacking and spanking. So – why not take the opportunity to enter the debate – blog style? Does smacking harm a child?, Does it help discipline?, Is it a parent’s right to spank? Dipping into the wealth of research data, the two opposing views thrash it out… (in a non-physical way, of course).

Ding ding! Seconds out for round one…

Opinion 1: Why Smacking Should be Banned

Smacking, beating or whipping children is unequivocally wrong. It harms the child psychologically, and undermines the parent-child relationship. There is no need to do it and better, more effective disciplining methods exist. Using physical force on children represents a failure in parenting and teaches youngsters that the solution to conflict is with violence. At least 29 countries have drawn up the legislation preventing the spanking of children. This is a victory for child welfare, and more countries should now follow suit.

Crying childSweden outlawed the hitting or smacking of children in 1979, and since then there has been a decline in the number of children entering care (26%). Scotland, on the other hand still allows parents to administer corporal punishment – and the rates of children needing care have more than quadrupled. Likewise, rates of childhood homicide (nearly always committed by a parent) are poles apart. In Scotland two hundred times more children have died from homicide in the last twenty years. Contrary to what advocates of smacking fear, there has been no outbreak of unruly, maladjusted children in countries, like Sweden, where spanking has been banned.

Evidence has also been mounting showing corporal punishment is a wholly ineffective form of disciplining a child. This is the stance taken by the United Nations (UNICEF – Convention on the Rights of the Child), as well as the American Psychological Association. Since 1975, the American Psychological Association has taught that smacking teaches violence and fails to reduce undesirable behaviour.

These findings have been supported by research and surveys: physical chasiment of a child has the opposite effect to the one intended; it increases anti-social behaviour, increases violent tendencies at school and is more likely to make children fearful of their parents.Children have a right to physical protection; spanking and beating serves to instil a sense of powerlessness.

In light of an abundance of data (notably from longitudinal studies) proving that long lasting psychological harm results from hitting – it is high time that smacking, spanking, beating (or call it what you like) is forever consigned to the history books. If we are to call ourselves ‘civilised’, that is.

Oh, and forget the argument ‘Smacking is harmless, because I was smacked’. Even if parents explain the reasons for a smack, increased rates of depression, aggression and alienation remain.

Opinion 2: Why Smacking Should be Allowed

To suggest that parents cannot discipline their children with a smack is both patronising and insulting. It serves to vilify the vast majority of loving parents who use a judicious slap to correct unruly behaviour. We live In an age where children desperately need clear boundaries and to learn consequences for their actions. A slap of a child on their leg or behind – without fear of legal repercussions – is crucial in a modern, loving family.

Family of dorksNo one would argue that physical violence against children can be harmful in many ways; however smacking as a form of discipline is different to ‘beating’. Children are not ‘little adults’, they do not perceive the world in the same way we do: until the age of seven, most children will be unable to demonstrate true empathy – and to argue that children are ‘small adults’ and so outlaw smacking is idiocy.

There is actually a complete lack of data to show that slapping children really results in long term damage. The ‘anti-smacking’ lobby fail to correctly interpret data: confusing correlation with causality. Higher rates of depression, aggression and mental illness are found in people who were smacked, but this could be for entirely different (e.g. socio-economic) reasons.

New research shows that disciplining is best done in a way that is relevant to the culture. Contrary to those who believe that all forms of physical discipline are inappropriate – a comprehensive survey conducted in 2010 actually demonstrated that the most well-adjusted teenagers were smacked as children (between ages 2 and 7).

Parenting is one of the most important jobs and parents should be given the responsibility they deserve. There will always be irresponsible parents. There will always be those who choose to abuse children. A slap on the arm or leg of a child from a parent is not child abuse. Let’s please not be forced to live in a complete ‘nanny state.

The punch line?

There is plentiful research to both support a smacking ban and oppose it. The arguments above represent but a small summary of some of it. I am childless, and so have never faced the dilemma that many of my friends suffer parental angst over.

Happy FamilyIncidentally, “spare the rod, spoil the child” is a oft used misquote of the Bible. The text actually says: “Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.” The passage comes from a satirical 17th Century poem “Hudibras” poem by Samuel Butler.

From the safety of sitting on the sidelines, I wonder – will it ever be possible to reconcile the debate? I somehow doubt it.

Could there be a third way that avoids laws and bans?

Parenting is an awesome responsibility – and I have the utmost respect for those who do it. Politicians and policy-makers will debate parenting until the cows come home – but one thing is clear: child well-being centres on time with a happy family whose interactions are consistent and secure. (see The role of inequality and materialism by UNICEF)

So let’s just hope those politicians get home in time to tuck their kids into bed…


Thanks for reading – comments and feedback are warmly welcomed! Opinions expressed are my own, etc…


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SELECTED REFERENCES: – click the links within the text above some more

Straus MA, Sugarman DB, & Giles-Sims J (1997). Spanking by parents and subsequent antisocial behavior of children. Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine, 151 (8), 761-7 PMID: 9265876

Lansford, J., Malone, P., Dodge, K., Lei Chang, ., Chaudhary, N., Tapanya, S., Oburu, P., & Deater-Deckard, K. (2010). Children’s perceptions of maternal hostility as a mediator of the link between discipline and children’s adjustment in four countries International Journal of Behavioral Development, 34 (5), 452-461 DOI: 10.1177/0165025409354933

Strassberg, Z., Dodge, K., Pettit, G., & Bates, J. (2008). Spanking in the home and children’s subsequent aggression toward kindergarten peers Development and Psychopathology, 6 (03) DOI: 10.1017/S0954579400006040

Taylor, J., & Redman, S. (2004). The smacking controversy: what advice should we be giving parents? Journal of Advanced Nursing, 46 (3), 311-318 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2004.02993.x

12 responses to “When is it right to Smack a Child?”

  1. Parenting is by no means an exact science and on most topics the waters are fairly murky as to ‘right and wrong ways of doing things’. In terms of smacking though it’s common sense that should tell parents that using violence as a means to deflect conflict makes no sense at all. It not only lacks sense but is also cruel and a lazy substitue for clear boundary setting.

    I personally feel there is a difference between a nanny state and a country who wishes to protect the Human Rights of it’s members.

    • Hi Georgie,
      Thanks for your comments! It’s interesting to see that so far the poll shows a 50/50 divide between for and against. I wonder if anyone who is in favour of smacking is brave enough to comment…

  2. I was vaguely amused to see that no opinion was expressed in the blog. I realise that smacking is an incredibly contentious issue, but I was smacked as a child and belive it was done in a loving way as possible. I knew I had crossed the line with my behavior and knew what the consequence would be. I was only smacked a handful of times in my entire childhood so in no way do I see it as any form of abuse. I’m not sure if I had a child would I do the same but I do think parents should have the final say in how they discipline their children.

  3. Here in New Zealand smacking was recently banned, however a public referendum showed that the majority did not want it banned. I was smacked as a child and I am a pretty good person (I think), however there was one occasion where it went too far. I think this is the main issue, we have a major child abuse problem in NZ and one of the ways of tackling this was to outlaw smacking, thereby preventing any occasion where it could go too far and seriously hurt or kill the child. The line between a light smack and a hard hit is sometimes thin, especially if the parent is very angry.

    A friend told me this once “This is my family, they love me and sometimes they hit me a little”…sounds messed up don’t you think?

  4. I was never spanked, to me it is like hitting the dog, it means you have lost control of the situation. Children and teenagers can be beastly, it is why there is adult supervision.

    Good dogs and well mannered children, even children with behavior issues require than one spends time with them, there is no other way.

  5. I have never raised children, but I have raised dogs. I can confirm that the physical punishment methods recommended by the monks of New Skete are much quicker than positive encouragement methods, are effective in making the dog compliant with the master’s wishes and make the dog much more prone to violence in establishing its place in the social hierarchy. So whether or not to use physical punishment in teaching depends on what you consider most important, your time and effort or the student’s emotional and social well-being.

    • Hi Tom, thanks for your comment,
      It’s an interesting and brave point to compare raising children with Dogs. I’m sure everyone would agree that a child’s emotional and social well-being trumps an adult’s time and effort. Out of interest, would you say there was never a place for physical discipline of any sort?

  6. Interesting article and debate. However, I can’t help but feel most of the impassioned responses seem to be from people with no experience of raising children – the theory of child-rearing is lovely, but the practice is messy. As far as any kind of “Human Rights” approach re smacking, that goes too far; a child needs meaningful boundaries, and has to understand that there are consequences to their actions. The job of parenting is hard enough with constant concern that the state is going to haul you up for some misdemeanor or another. Why add another to the list?

  7. Smacking or any form of violence used in disciplining a child should not be encouraged because this will expose our kids to violence at a very young age. I think talking with them with a serious tone will be effective enough to make them understand.

  8. Depends on the intent – to relieve own frustration , to hurt ? NEVER
    To teach a lesson in safe behaviour , to educate , to prevent injury ( running into a traffic to get a ball ) to make a child behave safer- ABSOLUTELY, discipline a chile ? Why NOT ?
    No parent should enjoy hurting own child, some parents, this one included have resorted to imicking what our own parents used to do when we small. We also received spanking.
    My dad actually would a catch a child which unattended by own parents would keep running around and hitting the newspaper he had read, till my dad, grabbed the kid and gave him 2 spanks on the butt. Well, that was a long time ago, and the child’s mother had thanked him, because the kid stopped behaving as if possessed by a Devil.

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