Legislative change is required to protect children from corporal punishment

Paddling of children in the United States of America

Sadly, I’m not talking about the type of paddling traditionally done at the seaside.


You might think that spanking (smacking, as we would call it in the UK) and paddling (striking the buttocks with a wooden paddle) were punishments of a bygone era in schools, but not so here in the United States. I have been stunned to learn that physical punishment of children in schools is still permitted in many areas of the United States despite many decades of research showing that:

  • Children who are physically punished are at greater risk of serious injury and physical child abuse
  • Physical punishment of children puts them at risk of negative outcomes including mental health problems
  • Physical punishment of children makes it more likely that they will be defiant and aggressive in the future


Physical punishment
Physical punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing the child to experience bodily pain or discomfort so as to correct or punish the child’s behaviour. Physical punishment, often used interchangeably with corporal punishment, includes slapping, spanking or smacking and hitting with a hard object – such as a wooden paddle (often 60 cm long, 7.5 cm wide and over 1 cm thick), but it can also include things such as washing a child’s mouth out with soap and water, making a child kneel on sharp or painful objects, forcing a child to sit or stand in painful positions for a long period of time or compelling a child to engage in excessive exercise or physical exertion. Physical punishment is, thus, very different from physical restraint – that which is necessary to protect a child from self-harm or harming others.

Throughout the last two and a half weeks in the United States I have been particularly interested in the work of Dr Elizabeth Gershoff, in conjunction with Phoenix Children’s Hospital, into physical punishment in the United States.

Here in the United States nearly two thirds of parents of very young children reported using physical punishment and in schools many children continue to receive physical punishment in the form of paddling (up to three strikes on the buttocks by a wooden paddle). During 2009 over two hundred thousand children are estimated to have received physical punishment in schools in the United States and although this decreased from over a quarter of a million children during the 2004-2005 school year (where Mississippi, for example, physically punished over 45000 students and Texas physically punished over 57000 students) it is still a worryingly high number.


In some districts in Texas, for example, parents are asked, on enrolment of their child in school, whether physical punishment (paddling) of the child is to be allowed by the parent. A form must be completed with three options:

  • Yes, physical punishment of my child is allowed
  • No, physical punishment of my child is not allowed
  • Yes, physical punishment of my child is allowed but you must contact me first to discuss (allowing the parents the final decision or, in some cases, facilitating the parents attending the school to administer the physical punishment themselves or to administer the punishment at home)

Those people who I spoke to who have delivered physical punishment in schools are acting in accordance with the policy of the organisation that they work for and in accordance with the law. They believed, as did some parents I spoke to, that for some children paddling is the only effective deterrent from poor behaviour or punishment for any such behaviour that may occur.


What about the research?
Research has demonstrated that parents are more likely to use physical punishment if:

  • They strongly favour it and believe in its effectiveness
  • They were physically punished as children
  • They have a cultural background (for example religion, ethnicity, country of origin) that they perceive approves of the use of physical punishment
  • They are socially disadvantaged (for example low income, low level of education or living in a socially deprived area)
  • They report being frustrated or aggravated with their children on a regular basis
  • The child is under the age of 5 years
  • They are experiencing stress (such as financial hardship, relationship conflict), adverse mental health symptoms or low emotional well-being

However, the more parents use physical punishment the more aggressive their children become over time even when controlling for their initial levels of aggression, the frequency or severity with which children experience physical punishment is associated with increased childhood mental health problems and physical punishment is associated with poorer quality parent-child relationships.

Children who are physically punished are at risk of significant harm with those that have been smacked by their parents being seven times more likely to be seriously assaulted (for example punched or kicked) than those who have not been physically punished and 2.3 times more likely to suffer an injury requiring medical attention than those who have not been smacked.

There are a number of reasons that have been hypothesised as to why physical punishment is not effective as a disciplinary technique including that:

  • It does not teach children why their behaviour was wrong or what they should do instead
  • It teaches children that they should behave in certain ways or risk physical punishment if they do not, rather than teaching them the important, positive reasons for behaving appropriately
  • It indicates to children that it is acceptable to use physical force and aggression against another person
  • It can increase the likelihood of children behaving aggressively themselves in other social interactions
  • It may teach children to link violence with a relationship that is supposed to be built on the foundation of love


Worldwide perspective
A number of countries around the world have already prohibited physical punishment of children in all settings. For example:

Area Law
Sweden Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment(Parenthood and Guardianship Code, 1983)
Finland A child shall be brought up in the spirit of understanding, security and love. He shall not be subdued, corporally punished or otherwise humiliated(Child Custody and Rights of Access Act, 1983)
Norway The child shall not be exposed to physical violence or to treatment which can threaten his physical or mental health(Parent and Child Act, 1987)
Austria The use of force and infliction of physical or psychological suffering are not permitted(Section 146a, General Civil Code, 1989)
Denmark A child has the right to care and security. He or she shall be treated with respect as an individual and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or other degrading treatment(Parental Custody and Care Act, 1997)
Latvia Cruel treatment or a child, physical punishment and offences against the child’s honour and respect are not allowed(On Children’s Rights Protection, 1998)
Germany Physical punishment, the causing of psychological harm and other degrading measures are forbidden(Civil Law, 2000)
Ukraine Physical punishment of the child by the parents as well as other inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment are prohibited(Family Code of Ukraine, Article 150[7])
The Netherlands In the care and upbringing of the child the parents will not use emotional or physical violence or any other humiliating treatment(Article 1:247 of the Civil Code, 6 March 2007)
Costa Rica Parental authority confers the rights and imposes the duties to orient, educate, care, supervise and discipline the children, which in no case authorises the use of corporal punishment or any other form of degrading treatment against the minors(Article 143, Family Code, June 2008)


Within Europe the Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly Recommendation 1666 (2004) has stated that:

The Assembly considers that any corporal punishment of children is in breach of their fundamental right to human dignity and physical integrity. The fact that such corporal punishment is still lawful in certain member states violates their equally fundamental right to the same legal protection as adults. Striking a human being is prohibited in European society and children are human beings. The social and legal acceptance of corporal punishment of children must be ended.


What about back in the UK?

Parents have not been explicitly prohibited from smacking their children. However, section 58 of the Children Act 2004 limited the use of the defence of reasonable punishment so that parents and those acting in loco parentis who cause physical injury to their children can no longer use the ‘reasonable punishment’ defence where they are charged with assaults occasioning cruelty, actual or grievous bodily harm. The defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ is only available to parents, or others acting in loco parentis (provided they are not expressly prohibited from using physical punishment, for example in schools), where the charge is one of common assault.

Physical punishment is prohibited in all maintained and full-time independent schools, in children’s homes, in local authority foster homes and Early Years provision. Section 58 of The Children Act 2004 limits the defence of Reasonable Punishment as follows:


(1)  In relation to any offence specified in subsection (2), battery of a child cannot be justified on the ground that it constituted reasonable punishment.

(2)  The offences referred to in subsection (1) are –

(a) an offence under section 18 or 20 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 (c. 100) (wounding and causing grievous bodily harm);

(b) an offence under section 47 of that Act (assault occasioning actual bodily harm);

(c) an offence under section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (c. 12) (cruelty to persons under 16).

(3)  Battery of a child causing actual bodily harm to the child cannot be justified in any civil proceedings on the ground that it constituted reasonable punishment.

(4)  For the purposes of subsection (3) “actual bodily harm” has the same meaning as it has for the purposes of section 47 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861.

(5)  In section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, omit subsection (7).


Effectively, physical punishment is illegal if it leaves a mark on a child or an implement (such as a cane or belt) is used to physically punish the child. A review of Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 took place in 2007 and it was concluded that no further changes were necessary.

I, however, remain concerned that Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 is not consistent with Article 19 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child as surely any physical punishment of a child constitutes physical violence and should, within our own legislative system, be classified as at least Common Assault.

An offence of Common Assault is committed when a person either assaults another person or commits a battery. An assault is committed when a person intentionally or recklessly causes another to apprehend the immediate infliction of unlawful force. A battery is committed when a person intentionally and recklessly applies unlawful force to another.


Why am I writing about corporal punishment?

In a research study designed to look at child protection and emergency medicine in the United States to see what we can learn back in the UK, why have I decided to write about corporal punishment?

Firstly, smacking of a child by a parent is still legal in the UK and secondly a number of children who attend emergency departments in the UK will have been physically punished by their parent(s).

Given the above risk factors for parents who are more likely to use physical punishment on their children and given the risks that this poses to the children concerned clinicians need to be vigilant to look out for signs that any such punishment was not reasonable, or to carefully consider whether the risks of a particular situation are significant enough that the child in question is at risk of significant harm and that such harm is greater than the harm already caused by a law which permits parents to physically punish their children at the current time.

Regardless of whether there is a statistically significant association or not between deaths from child maltreatment and the legal corporal punishment situation in a particular reason, it strikes me that if we are to succeed in reducing the number of cases of child death from child abuse and the number of cases of child maltreatment, given the role that society has in protecting those children, we must begin from a stand-point of taking the moral high ground which is that it is unacceptable to physically punish children, whatever the circumstances, and that there are much more effective and appropriate punishments to administer.

The position of a society where physical punishment of children is permitted yet child abuse is forbidden is no longer a tenable one. 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 and that requires legislative change in a number of jurisdictions, including our own.



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