Blog posts

13 Jan 2020

Has a History of Smacking Children Been Effective?

January 13, 2020Psychology

Does smacking children help?

With France becoming the 52nd country to ban smacking children (December 2017) and other countries considering a similar move, parents are becoming aware that what was historically a quick and easy solution to the bad behaviour of their children is now becoming socially unacceptable. Children have been physically chastised by their parents since the beginning of time. Smacking as an attempt to prevent unacceptable behaviour has been the norm for generations. It could be argued that it is the ‘natural’ thing to do, deeply embedded in the psyche over time, almost instinctual. But where does smacking cross the line into physical violence and abuse?

Adults generally have a tolerance threshold and as any parent will know, children have an amazing ability to push the boundaries. Those adults who are considered average, ‘normal’ human beings, the types that do not glorify violence and walk away rather than confront, tend to have a high tolerance threshold. However, there are issues that can reduce that threshold either temporarily or permanently. Stress suffered as a result of job losses, money worries, bereavement, illness, etc, can lead to a short fuse, even for the most calm adult. Where this occurs, a simple smack can quite easily lead to a violent beating (often with immediate regret from the parent), leading to potential long-term psychological damage to the child. Once that line is crossed, it is easy for such beatings to become the new norm.

Domestic punishment

Technically, smacking children is referred to as domestic corporate punishment. Judicial corporal punishment describes a practice used until the late 20th century around the world, with violence being inflicted on adults by authorities such as prisons, the military and other bodies. All sorts of methods and tools were used (and in a few countries, still are), to inflict pain on adults in an attempt to gain obedience and compliance. However, human rights awareness and the recognition that violence against human beings provides only negative outcomes has all but put an end to this in most modern societies.

Nevertheless, domestic corporal punishment is allowed to continue. Even though 52 countries have now banned smacking, the majority of societies still allow and accept hitting children as a form of discipline, despite the fact that international studies have shown that although the majority of parents believe it to be an effective and positive method of moulding children’s’ personalities, the opposite is true.

Many studies conducted since the 1960s have shown that physical chastisement increases aggression and can have long-term anti-social effects on children (1). It can affect their healthy development, impacting confidence, focus and the ability to interact normally with other people as they get older.

Professor Elizabeth Gershoff suggests that corporal punishment may actually decrease a child’s “moral internalisation” of positive values. (2) 60 years of research highlighted by Gershoff on corporal punishment found that it was linked with nine negative outcomes in children, including increased rates of aggression, delinquency, mental health problems, problems in relationships with parents, and likelihood of being physically abused. (3)

Human rights and smacking children

According to Human Rights Watch, 90% of the world’s children live in societies where smacking children is legal. Defences that support ‘reasonable chastisement’ are derived from English Law, one of the reasons that England still enables it. But with children’s commissioners across the British Isles calling for a UK-wide change in the law (3), Scotland has decided to ban smacking (although legislation has not yet changed) and Wales has committed to ban the practice, it looks likely that England will follow suit. This will inevitably lead to an opinion change of other countries over time.

The difficulty with endorsing the smacking of children is that ‘reasonable physical chastisement’ is almost impossible to legally define, with the word ‘reasonable’ being open to interpretation. What parts of the child’s body are acceptable to smack? How hard can individual parts be hit? What shape of hand can be used? Palm or fist? Can feet be used? What about the definition of a weapon and what weapon would be reasonable? What about a rolled-up tea towel? In fact, what about anything in the hand of the adult when their tolerance threshold has been crossed? A court would be the only body qualified to define ‘reasonable’, but at that stage it is likely to be too late for the child who has been abused.

Bernadette Saunders of Monash University stated “Children commonly tell us that physical punishment hurts them physically and can escalate in severity; arouses negative emotions, such as resentment, confusion, sadness, hatred, humiliation, and anger; creates fear and impedes learning; is not constructive, children prefer reasoning; and it perpetuates violence as a means of resolving conflict. Children’s comments suggest that children are sensitive to inequality and double standards, and children urge us to respect children and to act responsibly”

The argument

The arguments for hitting children no longer stand up. For the parent, a short term benefit is the child’s unacceptable behaviour will be likely to stop. But there seems to be no medium or long-term benefit for anybody. It is clear that smacking creates only negativity for the individual in the long term and a wider negative impact on society as a whole.

But how do we quickly change a cultural normality? Parents who were smacked as children and who smack their own may find it difficult to adjust, especially when the violence occurs behind closed doors, despite a change in the law. Once the law has been changed however, over time there will likely be a tipping point where most adults will accept that any form of corporate punishment is unacceptable.

(1) New Scientist (2) ‘More Harm Than Good…’ 2010 (3) Wikipedia