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Is it ever okay to smack your children?

Profile picture for user Online4baby
May 21, 2018

This is a question that always stirs passionate debate, based on people’s own childhood experiences, their opinions of their mothers and fathers, and their own struggles or successes as a parent.

Many people wonder how it is even a debate. Parents know kids learn by example, by what they do and not by what they say. Parents are big and wise; children are small and impressionable. How can even the most judicious application of physical force be appropriate?

Some people, they say, should be banned from having children.

On the other hand, many people feel that it is quite normal for children to get smacked sometimes, that every mum and dad gets stressed by their kids some time and it’s unrealistic to expect any different.

In Britain, it is illegal to hit a child (as it is to hit an adult) but in England, there is the legal defence of ‘reasonable punishment’, which applies to parents or privately hired nannies or babysitters with parental permission to administer corporal punishment. Parents in Scotland and Wales are not lawfully permitted to smack their children under any circumstances.

Over 50 countries across the globe have made it illegal for anyone to hit children. However, as soon as the topic comes up for debate in Britain, tabloid headlines, radio phone-ins and everyday conversation in the street show that many, many people in the UK are not quite ready for smacking to be banned.

One famous case of corporal punishment was the fatal beating of a 15-year-old boy at the hands of his teacher in England in 1860, an incident that became known as the Eastbourne Manslaughter. This established the legal precedence for ‘reasonable’ force, which then passed into common law and as a result is still the legislation in many former colonies of the British Empire.

One study shows 20 percent of parents in the UK have admitted to smacking their children, but it is almost always in a moment of ‘losing control’ and not a soberly administered slap across the back of the legs or backside. The fact that parents are often not in their best judgment when they decide to punish suggests that they know it’s a mistake and something they quickly regret.

In terms of the law, the most vulnerable (both physically and emotionally) are the least protected.

Where is corporal discipline illegal?

Table of different countries

ArgentinaYAll corporal punishment became prohibited through a law in 2014 which came into force in January 2016.
AustraliaNCorporal punishment of minors in the home is legal provided it is "reasonable". As of 2010, there are no laws against using an implement in any state or territory.
AustriaYOn 15 March 1989, corporal punishment of children became explicitly banned through a new law stating that "using violence and inflicting physical or mental suffering is unlawful".
CanadaNParents may use "reasonable" physical force to discipline their children, including spanking.
DenmarkYA new law came into force on 28 May 1997, clarifying any misunderstandings and saying that any physical punishment is unlawful.
IrelandYChild corporal punishment has been definitively criminalised since the Children First Act 2015.
ItalyNThe Supreme Court of Italy ruled in 1996 that corporal punishment is not a defensible form of correction, but legislation in Italy has yet to reflect this change.
NorwayYAn explicit ban on corporal punishment of children came into force in 1987, and the current law is that any violence against children, including careful slaps, is prohibited.
South AfricaYIn 2017, all corporal punishment of children by adults became prohibited.
South KoreaNArticle 915 of the Civil Act 1958 provides adults the "right to take disciplinary action". Laws against violence and abuse are not generally interpreted as prohibiting corporal punishment of children.
SwedenYSweden became the world's first nation to outlaw corporal punishment of children in 1966. Corporal punishment in Sweden does not usually carry a criminal penalty, unless it meets the criteria for assault.
UK: ScotlandNSince 2003 it has been unlawful to punish a child using any implement or upon the head. In 2017, the Scottish Government confirmed it will pass SNP-backed legislation to ban all corporal punishment completely.
UK: Northern IrelandNDomestic corporal punishment is generally legal, but it is unlawful to hit a child upon the head.
UK: England & WalesNCriminal law has a general prohibition against common assault and battery, but corporal punishment is legal through tradition and an implicit common law justification/defence.
United StatesNCorporal punishment of children by parents is explicitly legal according to the state laws of 49 states (all except Minnesota).
JapanNNo ban of corporal punishment.
IndiaNCorporal punishment in childcare institutions has been illegal since 2016, but parents can still smack their children.
ChinaNThe 2015 Anti-Domestic Violence Act states that minors should not be subjected to domestic violence in the home, but spanking children is not explicitly banned and is very common in both home and at school.
BrazilYIn 2014, physical punishment of children and adolescents was banned nationally.
GermanyYCorporal punishment for children was banned in 2000.
SpainYThe Civil Code was changed in 2007 to make any form of physical punishment for children illegal.
FranceYViolence against children is criminalised, but parents had the right to use low-level corporal punishment until that was also banned in 2017. It is not a criminal offence, however.
NigeriaNChild rights laws at state level prohibit corporal punishment that reaches a certain threshold of severity but are not interpreted as prohibiting all corporal punishment by parents.
JamaicaNCorporal punishment is lawful in the home under the common law right to inflict “reasonable and moderate” punishment.

In 2010, the Ministry of Justice stated that provisions in the Family and Criminal Codes amount to prohibition of corporal punishment of children.

However, in the absence of explicit prohibition it is not clear that they effectively prohibit all forms of physical punishment in childrearing.

Some frequently heard arguments for smacking children

I was smacked when I was a kid and it never did any harm"

Sounds as though you were lucky, as there is a large body of research that shows a vicious circle of antisocial behaviour and corporal punishment leading to more antisocial behaviour. The vast majority of research on the subject seems to show that setting positive goals and boundaries is a far more effective way of shaping a child’s moral development.

Many things were considered quite normal in years gone by, even healthy, which are now thought of by many as completely unacceptable – drink-driving, racist language, rock stars with under-age groupies.

Comic strips from the 1970s and 1980s regularly featured the risk of slipper or cane: it went with the territory of being a rebellious schoolkid. It seems, though, that the ideas of what is normal have moved on and, globally, this might be the case with children and corporal punishment.

Someone might feel that being punished with a clip round the ear as a kid did them no harm, but it did apparently give them the idea that it’s okay to smack children.

You can’t tell me what to do with my own children’

Being responsible for the growth of one or more human beings into well-functioning, healthy individuals is massively demanding, every single parenting decision seems to have enormous consequences, and it is incredibly easy to feel guilty or defensive about even the smallest mistake.

However, even though parents are legally and morally obliged to take care of their children, sometimes the attitude sounds more like ownership than guardianship. Is part of the problem that many people feel as though their children somehow belong to them, extensions of themselves rather than independent, smaller human beings?

A complaint often made by opponents to banning parenting smacking is that it will mean the state interfering in a perfectly normal, loving family and bringing about more emotional distress than the original incident. However, there seems to be no evidence that this has happened in the many countries that have recently made corporal punishment illegal in all respects.

In fact, these changes are generally used as public education tools rather than an attempt to criminalise the parents.

I’ve smacked my child and they are perfectly normal"

Even the most committed opponent of corporal punishment would recognise a difference between regular, violently abusive behaviour and occasional physical punishment in an otherwise loving and stable family environment. At the same time, reactions from the little ones are difficult to predict: sometimes the aggression that they encounter is internalised and manifests as mental health issues later in life.

The overwhelming majority of studies show that even one incident of physical punishment can have an impact on a child’s sense of trust and security.

Children rarely seem to follow exactly the same developmental pattern, even within the same family. This is one of the key battlegrounds of the nature/nurture debate. However, there may be a couple of factors that explain some of these differences.

For example, there are signs that there might be a genetic element – Monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) is an enzyme that plays a key role in the catabolism (breaking up) of neurotransmitters like serotonin and has been linked to increased aggression. Children were assessed annually in one study from the age of six until they were 22, and it was found that boys with high levels of MAOA responded more violently to corporal punishment than those with lower amounts.

Spare the rod, spoil the child"

It may be that you feel the threat of slapped legs kept you on the straight and narrow as a youngster and made you the sober, responsible, caring adult that you are today.

On the other hand, there is a large pile of research  that suggests physical punishment makes no improvement in children’s behaviour at all.


Punishing unacceptable or challenging behaviour physically may seem a proportionate response at the time, but there is often some anger involved, which could easily distort parental judgment. Children will become more aggressive and antisocial as they struggle to deal with powerful emotional responses if those emotions are met with anger or disapproval from their parents.

Perhaps the most disturbing result is that children will learn that disagreements should be resolved physically, which is not something that will be very helpful later in life.
Even if it does seem to get results in the short term, this might be one area where the parenting rule of ‘If it works, do it!’ should not be applied.

It’s PC nonsense. Soon, you won’t be able to do anything to discipline children. Kids today have no discipline!"

If you think a ban on smacking is outrageous, there are many people out there who believe it doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. Children have human rights and it is wrong, they claim, for them to be treated with any less consideration than adults are. After all, even though small children might not have all the cognitive skills of a grown-up, emotionally we probably aren’t all that different, are we? 

There are parents who practice what they call respectful parenting, which involves asking the permission of children to give them a hug, pick them up or even changing a dirty nappy.

This is the kind of story that more sensationalist news sources go nuts for, but the idea is a timely one in that it is supposed to encourage a culture of consent.

Research into workplace behaviour indicates that people act in much more desirable ways when they are happy and that happiness comes from a sense of being valued; there is not much evidence to show that motivations like more money or a nicer office do much for workplace happiness without a sense of being listened to.

Ideally then, children are given some choice, some freedom, in order to work things out for themselves and therefore develop intrinsic motivation, their own ideas about why they should behave in an acceptable way and what benefits that will bring.

The idea that this is a far more effective way of modelling desirable behaviours than either a stick or a carrot. Some argue that this gentle parenting approach is far more effective, but there are many parents who will shake their heads in disbelief when they imagine trying to apply the philosophy to their own families.

Unsurprisingly, there is a broad spectrum of ideas about how to bring up children – roughly one different philosophy per parent, running into the billions. How could we ever be expected to agree?

If you are concerned about a child’s safety at home, you can call Child Line 0808 800 5000.

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