Image from Welsh Government campaign

This week Wales joined 60 other nations, including Scotland, in banning the physical punishment of children. The law was passed by the Welsh Senedd and is enforceable from Monday.

“The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child makes it clear that children have the right to be protected from harm and from being hurt and this includes physical punishment. That right is now enshrined in Welsh law. No more grey areas. No more ‘defence of reasonable punishment’. That is all in the past. There is no place for physical punishment in a modern Wales.”

First Minister Mark Drakeford

“It is sometimes necessary to smack a child”

Support for the new law has been fairly high, with objectors giving vent to their feelings on social media. In recent research 35% strongly disagreed with the statement ‘It is sometimes necessary to smack a child’, against 27% who strongly agreed. However, these figures hide significant differences amongst different sections of the population.

If we compare the views of carers and non-carers about smacking under 7s (the group most likely to receive physical punishment), some 44% of carers strongly disagreed with the statement compared to 28% of non-carers who strongly agreed. Whilst there are still those who believe it is their right to beat their children (though most would claim that a slap on the bottom hardly counts as beating), it is clear that they are more likely to be people who do not have caring responsibilities for young kids.

The numbers agreeing with physical punishment show a definite age relationship with over 55s far more likely to agree that it is sometimes necessary to smack a child, with 34% strongly agreeing compared to 19% of 16-34 year olds. This relationship is borne out by the comments on some of the news reports (though to be fair the posters aren’t required to give their age, or even their real name).

One poster said “Sad day for our children when you give them control over their parents. Watch out for all the invented tales of woe where the kids get wise to controlling their parents. ‘If I can’t do A B or C, I will report you to the police pretending you smacked me.’ Absolute disaster for families who will lose control of their children and have them removed (regardless of whether the smack took place) and handed over to non-parents, with all the faults in relationships that will bring.”

Out of touch Britain

That there is this kind of debate – and it is a debate which will continue in both England and the USA – reflects on the type of society some people want to live in. It is a society where everything is reduced to a possession. This includes young human beings. And, provided it is your possession, you can do with it as you please.

To realise how out of touch British society is we need to realise that Sweden outlawed physical punishment of children as long ago as 1979. I searched for evidence of children sending their parents to prison, but it appears that most adults there have simply accepted that hitting somebody who is half your size is not appropriate under any circumstances. Not only Sweden but also Germany, Spain, Brazil, Ukraine and New Zealand have full bans on all corporal punishment.

According to a large study published in BMJ Open in 2018:

“Countries that prohibit corporal punishment at home and at school have rates of physical fighting among young men and women that are 42 to 69 per cent lower than in countries without any such bans in place…In countries where full bans were in force, the prevalence of physical fighting was 69 per cent lower among young men and 42 per cent lower among young women than it was in countries without any ban.”

British Medical Journal

We should not underestimate the scale of the problem. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), almost 300 million, or three-quarters, of the world’s two- to four-year-old children are subjected to psychological abuse, physical punishment, or both by their caregivers at home.

Violence does not work

It is not just that violence begets violence, although it clearly does. This is something all those people calling for more violence in Ukraine might think about. But physical punishment is ineffective and likely to do long-term damage to the recipient. Psychological studies have tended to reach the conclusion that physical punishment of children “may create in the child the impression that he or she is an ‘undesirable person.’” 

A YouGov survey published last year found that parents who were physically punished as children are twice as likely to do the same to their own children and that those parents physically punished as children are more likely to think physical punishments improve the behaviour of children.

These beliefs fly in the face of the research reported in The Lancet which concluded that physical punishments such as smacking actually led to increased behavioural issues, and no improvements in attention or cognitive ability. In other words, smacking children leads to worsening behaviour, lower self-esteem and a tendency to see violence as a legitimate response to disputes. It surely is time that the government in England followed the lead taken in Wales and Scotland and give children the same rights to bodily integrity that the law accords adults.

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