2013/14: Should it be a crime for parents to smack their children?
What they said...
'The only humans it is still legal to hit are the most vulnerable ones: children'
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians
'What are we going to do? Have the smacking police?'
Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg
The issue at a glance
In August, 2013, The Royal Australasian College of Physicians, which represents 14,000 doctors and paediatricians from Australia and New Zealand (RACP), proposed changes to the law that would make it illegal for parents to physically punish their children.
RACP claims its proposal is an attempt to protect Australia's children.
In Australia, where a reported majority of parents condone the use of physical punishment in disciplining their children, opponents argue that criminalising corporal punishment is an overreaction that undermines parental authority, assigns guilt to otherwise good parents and intrudes upon parental choice.
Currently no political party at either a state or federal level has proposed to criminalise parents using corporal punishment on their children.
(The following information is an abbreviated version of that found in the Wikipedia entry titled "Corporal punishment in the home'. The full text can be accessed at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporal_punishment_in_the_home)
Domestic corporal punishment (also referred to as corporal punishment in the home or parental corporal punishment) typically involves the corporal punishment of a child by a parent or guardian in the home-normally the spanking or slapping of a child with the parent's open hand, but occasionally with an implement such as a belt, slipper, cane or paddle.
In many cultures, parents have historically been regarded as having the duty of disciplining their children, and the right to spank them when appropriate. However, attitudes in many countries changed in the 1950s and 60s following the publication by paediatrician Benjamin McLane Spock of Baby and Child Care in 1946, which advised parents to treat children as individuals, whereas the previous conventional wisdom had been that child rearing should focus on building discipline, and that, for example., babies should not be "spoiled" by picking them up when they cried. The change in attitude was followed by legislation. Since 1979, 29 countries around the world (as at 2010) had outlawed domestic corporal punishment of children. In Europe, 22 countries have banned the practice. And in many other places the practice is considered controversial.
In Africa, the Middle East, and in most parts of Eastern Asia (including China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea), corporal punishment of one's own children is lawful. In Singapore and Hong Kong, punishing one's own child with corporal punishment is legal but not particularly encouraged. Culturally, many people in the region believe a certain amount of corporal punishment for their own children is appropriate and necessary, and thus such practice is accepted by society as a whole.
In Australia, corporal punishment of children in the home is currently legal, provided it is "reasonable". Parents who act unreasonably may be committing an assault. The Australian state of Tasmania is continuing to review the state's laws on the matter, and may seek to ban the use of corporal punishment by parents. The matter is also under review in other Australian states. A 2002 public opinion survey suggested the majority view was in support of retaining parents' right to smack with the open hand but not with an implement, although as of 2010, there are no laws against using an implement in any state or territory. In New South Wales, S61AA of the Crimes Act (1900) allows a parent a defence of lawful correction.
In the United Kingdom, corporal punishment is legal, but it must not leave a mark on the body and in Scotland it has been illegal to use any implements other than an open hand when disciplining a child since October 2003. The total abolition of corporal punishment has been discussed. In a 2004 survey, 71% of the population would support a ban on parents smacking their children. In a 2006 survey, 80% of the population said they believed in smacking, and 73% said that they believed that any ban would cause a sharp deterioration in children's behaviour. Seven out of ten parents said they themselves use corporal punishment. In a 2012 poll conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion, 63 per cent of Britons voiced opposition to banning parents in the UK from smacking their children.
Despite some opposition to corporal punishment in the United States, the spanking of children is legal in all states. Bans on the corporal punishment of children have been proposed in Massachusetts and California but have failed to secure passage.
Race, gender, and social class appear to be a significant factor in U.S. domestic corporal punishment patterns. Boys are more likely than girls to be spanked at home, and corporal punishment of boys tend http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporal_punishment_in_the_home s to be more severe and more aggressive than that of girls despite some research suggesting that corporal punishment is more counterproductive for boys than girls. Affluent families at the upper end of the socioeconomic scale spank least; Middle-class parents tend to administer corporal punishment in greater numbers; and lower-class parents tend to do so with still greater frequency. Black families are more likely to practice corporal punishment than white ones.
On August 9, 2013, The Sydney Morning Herald published an article detailing The Royal Australasian College of Physicians' proposal that it be made illegal for parents to physically punish their children.
The full text of the article can be found at http://www.smh.com.au/national/education/the-slap-20130809-2rlv2.html
On August 5, 2013, The Australian ran an opinion piece by Adam Shand, which is essentially a defence of parents' right to use reasonable physical force in the disciplining of their children.
The full text can be accessed at http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/parents-under-pressure-over-challenge-to-the-right-to-smack/story-e6frg8y6-1226691025704
On July 29, 2013, The Age ran an editorial opposing parental use of physical force titled 'Why smacking should be regarded as a crime'. The full text can be accessed at http://www.theage.com.au/comment/the-age-editorial/why-smacking-should-be-regarded-as-a-crime-20130728-2qsul.html
On July 26, 2013, The Conversation published an opinion piece by Associate Professor Susan Moloney, the President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians' paediatrics and child health division. The piece is titled 'Let's talk about making smacking children illegal' and argues for the abolition of the use of corporal punishment by parents on their children.
The full text can be accessed at http://theconversation.com/lets-talk-about-making-smacking-children-illegal-16399
On July 25, 2013, The Age printed an article titled 'Outlawing the smack' which detailed proposals from The Royal Australasian College of Physicians that it be made illegal for parents to physically punish their children.
The full text of this article can be found at http://www.theage.com.au/national/outlawing-the-smack-20130725-2qnl5.html
On May 29, 2013, The Australian Institute of Family Studies produced a background paper for the Australian Parliament titled 'Corporal Punishment: Key issues'. Among other information, the paper includes an outline of the legal situation in the different Australian states and territories regarding the corporal punishment of children.
The full text can be found at http://www.aifs.gov.au/nch/pubs/sheets/rs19/rs19.html
On August 2, 2012, Right Now, the journal of Human Rights in Australia ran an opinion piece titled 'The Slap: Corporal punishment and children's human rights' The piece is critical of the use of corporal punishment on children. The full text can be accessed at http://rightnow.org.au/topics/children-and-youth/the-slap-corporal-punishment-and-childrens-human-rights/
On November 9, 2011, CNN ran a report titled 'In Sweden, a generation of kids who've never been spanked'. The piece gives an overview of the situation in Sweden and the United States regarding the physical punishment of children.
The full text of this report can be accessed at http://edition.cnn.com/2011/11/09/world/sweden-punishment-ban
On January 4, 2010, The Mail Online ran a report on a then recent study which suggested some positive effects from the use of corporal punishment on children. The piece is titled 'Young children who are smacked "go on to be more successful"'. The full text can be accessed at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1240279/Children-smacked-young-likely-successful-study-finds.html
On February 15, 2001, On Line Opinion published a comment by Barry Maley titled 'Corporal punishment is not all bad.' The full text of the opinion piece can be found at http://www.onlineopinion.com.au/view.asp?article=1975
Arguments in favour of making smacking illegal
1. Smacking easily escalates into more serious physical abuse
It has been claimed that when parents believe it is appropriate for them to physically punish their children it can be difficult for them to draw a line short of inflicting serious injury and in some cases death.
Associate Professor Susan Moloney, the President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians' paediatrics and child health division has claimed that physical punishment could escalate to abuse.
Professor Moloney has stated, 'We know that a significant number of child homicides are a result of physical punishment which went wrong," she said. "It started off as physical punishment and went too far.'
Opponents of parents using corporal punishment claim that much child abuse begins with spanking: a parent accustomed to using corporal punishment may, on this view, find it all too easy, when frustrated, to step over the line into physical abuse. One study found that 40% of 111 mothers were worried that they could possibly hurt their children. It is argued that frustrated parents turn to spanking when attempting to discipline their child, and then get carried away (given the arguable continuum between spanking and hitting). This "continuum" argument also raises the question of whether a spank can be "too hard" and how (if at all) this can be defined in practical terms. This in turn leads to the question whether parents who spank their children 'too hard' are crossing the line and beginning to abuse them.
Opponents also argue that a further problem with the use of corporal punishment is that, if punishments are to maintain their efficacy, the amount of force required may have to be increased over successive punishments. This has been claimed by the American Academy of Paediatrics, which has asserted, 'The only way to maintain the initial effect of spanking is to systematically increase the intensity with which it is delivered, which can quickly escalate into abuse.' Additionally, the Academy noted that, 'Parents who spank their children are more likely to use other unacceptable forms of corporal punishment.'
A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that mothers who reported spanking their children were more likely (6% vs. 2%) to also report using forms of punishment considered abusive to the researchers "such as beating, burning, kicking, hitting with an object somewhere other than the buttocks, or shaking a child less than 2 years old" than mothers who did not report spanking, and increases in the frequency of spanking were statistically correlated with increased odds of abuse.
2. Parental smacking of children can cause serious psychological damage.
It has been argued that parents smacking their children can result in psycho-emotional harm. Research shows that such punishment can lead to depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
Research published in the American Academy of Paediatrics journal Paediatrics in 2012 based on data gathered from adults in the United States which excluded subjects who had suffered abuse showed an association between harsh corporal punishment by parents and increased risk of a wide range of mental illness.
Associate Professor Susan Moloney, the President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians' paediatrics and child health division has noted, 'As a paediatrician, what I am most concerned about is the serious long-term effects of physical punishment on children's well-being. This is not about parenting styles or punishing parents, it's about protecting children.
Research shows that a child who experiences physical punishment is more likely to develop increased aggressive behaviour and mental health problems as a child and as an adult.'
3. It is not legal to physically punish children in schools or other institutional settings
Associate Professor Susan Moloney, the President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians' paediatrics and child health division has noted, 'Australian states and territories have banned physical punishment in both government and non-government schools and the physical punishment of children in juvenile detention centres, foster care and childcare is also now prohibited.'
Susan Moloney also argues children should have the same protection from assault as other members of the community. The Associate Professor has stated, 'If you hit your dog, you could be arrested but it's legal to hit your child.' It has also been noted that physical abuse is not legal when applied to anyone other than one's own children.
This has been condemned as inequitable in that it denies children rights that are allowed to all others.
On October 7, 2011, in The Conversation, Bronwyn Naylor, Director, Equity and Diversity at Monash University and Bernadette Saunders, Senior Lecturer, Social Work at Monash University wrote, 'In Australia the only category of victims who can lawfully be assaulted is children, by their parents. There is no defence for a boss, a teacher or a childcare worker. There is no defence for a husband - domestic violence is now named and criminalised.'
On February 12, 2012, a similar point was made in a Canberra Times editorial, 'We have made rape in marriage illegal. We have abolished hanging and whipping in the criminal justice system. We have abolished corporal punishment in schools. Yet today in Australia it is still legal for parents to physically assault their children - provided it fits the woolly criteria of being "reasonable chastisement" or "reasonable correction".
4. Other jurisdictions have made it illegal for parents to smack their children
There are 33 countries that prohibit the physical punishment of children by their parents. Among them are South Sudan, Germany, Venezuela and New Zealand, the latter of which changed its law in 2007.
In 1979, Sweden became the first country to ban all forms of "corporal punishment". Before the ban, more than half its population considered physical punishment necessary as a disciplinary measure in raising children; however, a significantly smaller percentage now considers it acceptable. According to RACP research, this shift in public attitudes reflects a trend that exists in all countries where domestic corporal punishment has been banned.
Since the change of the law in New Zealand, there has been a fall in the number of people who believe physical punishment is effective and acceptable. Last year 63 per cent of parents surveyed said that, since the law changed, they never, or only rarely, smack their children.
5. Smacking teaches children that force is a solution to problems
It has been claimed that physically punishing children encourages them to become aggressive and teaches the social lesson that physical violence and intimidation are solutions to inter-personal problems.
A 1996 study by Straus suggested that children who receive corporal punishment are more likely to be angry as adults, use spanking as a form of discipline, approve of striking a spouse, and experience marital discord. According to Cohen's 1996 study, older children who receive corporal punishment may resort to more physical aggression, substance abuse, crime and violence.
Critics note that sanctioning smacking is inconsistent as it appears to endorse behaviours that our society claims to disparage. An editorial published in The Age on July 29, 2013, stated, 'When a big child hits a small child in the playground, we call him a bully; five years later he punches a woman for her handbag and is called a mugger; later still, when he slugs a workmate who insults him, he is called a troublemaker; but when he becomes a father and hits his tiresome, disobedient or disrespectful child, we call him a disciplinarian.''
6. Smacking children is not the most effective way to gain their compliance
The Royal Australasian College of Physicians has claimed that physical punishment, besides being hurtful and psychologically harmful, does not always stop bad behaviour. The College claims that there are other, more effective forms of discipline that parents could and should deploy with their children.
Associate Professor Susan Moloney, the President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians' paediatrics and child health division has noted, 'Children do need discipline to learn appropriate and socially-acceptable behaviour as they grow and develop. But it's increasingly clear that physical punishment is not an effective long-term strategy, because it doesn't work.'
Although smacking may seem effective in the short term, experts claim it is ineffective as a long-term disciplinary measure, with 'adverse consequences' for children's health and wellbeing. They argue it 'works against' its objective (normally obedience) because it fails to achieve long-term behavioural change, causes children to become fearful and mistrustful of their parents and reinforces the message that violence is the way to resolve conflict.
Some researchers believe that corporal punishment fails to work over time because children will not voluntarily obey an adult they do not trust. Elizabeth Gershoff, in a 2002 meta-analytic study that combined 60 years of research on corporal punishment, found that the only positive outcome of corporal punishment was immediate compliance; however, corporal punishment was associated with less long-term compliance.
The Australian Psychological Society holds that physical punishment of children should not be used as it has very limited capacity to deter unwanted behaviour, does not teach alternative desirable behaviour, often promotes further undesirable behaviours such as defiance and attachment to "delinquent" peer groups, and encourages an acceptance of aggression and violence as acceptable responses to conflicts and problems.
Experts say parents need a plan of action for disciplining their children, including some well-thought-out strategies. For example: providing proper supervision; setting suitable, age-appropriate boundaries; using a firm voice; removing children or distracting them from tricky situations; using time-out strategies; withdrawing privileges; and finding ways to explain the meaning of consequences. Rewarding positive behaviour is also considered important in demonstrating parental expectations.
Arguments against making smacking illegal
1. Making it illegal to for parents to smack their children would be impossible to enforce
It has been claimed that any law that seriously intended to prohibit smacking would be unenforceable. Most parental disciplining of children occurs within the home and is therefore outside the direct observation of law enforcement officers and others who might otherwise press a charge or lodge a complaint.
Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg has stated, 'What are we going to do? Have the smacking police?'
The Victorian Opposition Leader, Daniel Andrews, has stated, 'Parenting is hard and it's not made any easier by unenforceable and intrusive proposals like this.'
It has also been noted that making smacking illegal would allow for the possibility of false complaints made by children against their parents. Some legal experts fear that if smacking were made an offence then there could be vexatious complaints made against innocent parents by children seeking to exert control over their care-givers or to exact revenge for other forms of discipline applied to them.
There is also concern that a law against smacking parents risked criminalising parents for what a majority of Australians regard as a minor and legitimate parental activity. It has further been noted that any resultant prosecutions may well not be in the child's best interests as they would put strain on the family unit and may result in fines or other impositions on the parent that could disadvantage the whole family.
In 2006 Terry Grange, the spokesperson for the Association of Chief Police Officers, said if the child was not suffering or at risk of serious harm as a result of corporal punishment the matter should be dealt with by social services and not the police.
Constable Grange stated, 'The ACPO firmly believes that children should receive the protection of the criminal law but we are concerned that, unless there is clear and unambiguous guidance, revision of the defence could lead to parents being brought into the criminal justice system for minor incidents when this is not in children's or the public's interests.
Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/outlawing-the-smack-20130725-2qnl5.html#ixzz2d53fRq5x
2. Verbal and emotional abuse may be more harmful than a quick smack
In an opinion piece published in The Australian on August 5, 2013, Adam Shand wrote, 'The rage of parents blights many families. It's ugly, unpredictable and kids learn to walk on eggshells around us, accepting excuses about work stress, financial issues and marriage problems.
In that context, I would argue the occasional smack is the least of a kid's problems. It's a question of proportionality.'
A 1991 American survey defined verbal aggression directed at children as including such practices as putting children down, insulting them, swearing at them, and saying and doing things to spite them.
An analysis of data from a nationally representative sample of 3,346 American parents with a child under 18 living at home found that 63 per cent of the parents reported one or more instances of verbal aggression directed at their children.
The research indicated that the more frequent the verbal aggression the higher the chances of the children becoming physically aggressive with others; experiencing a variety of interpersonal problems and becoming juvenile delinquents.
Results such as these have led some experts to suggest that the issue is not whether the parents use physical discipline or not; what is significant is the manner in which the discipline is applied.
3. Children are already protected under assault laws
It has been noted that children are offered the same protections against abuse and assault as are available under the law to all Australians.
In addition, numerous states have introduced laws to regulate the manner in which parents may use physical punishment to discipline their children.
The Crimes Amendment Act 2001 (NSW) introduced an amendment specifying that physical punishment by a parent should not harm a child more than briefly and specifies the parts of a child's body that can be subject to force. This amendment to the Crimes Act 1900 (NSW) did not entirely remove parental capacity for corporal punishment nor explicitly ban the use of physical force towards children, but it did introduce strict guidelines on what is acceptable.
Though there is no legislation concerning corporal punishment by parents in Victoria, there is a common law defence for parental use of corporal punishment. Victorian common law allows parents to administer corporal punishment to children in their charge provided the punishment is neither unreasonable nor excessive.
Similarly, physical punishment by a parent towards a child remains lawful under the Tasmanian Criminal Code Act 1924 (Tas). The Act reads, 'It is lawful for a parent or a person in the place of a parent to use, by way of correction, any force towards a child in his or her care that is reasonable in the circumstances.'
Again, under the Criminal Code 1913 (WA) it remains lawful for parents to physically discipline their children. Section 257 of the code states that, 'It is lawful for a parent or a person in the place of a parent.... to use, by way of correction, toward a child or pupil under his care, such force as is reasonable under the circumstances.'
The requirement that any parental punishment that is administered be 'reasonable' is common across Australian states and territories.
4. Making it illegal for parents to physically punish their children has not reduced child abuse
It has been claimed that there is no significant link between smacking one's child and becoming a child abuser. Statistics do not suggest that banning parental use of corporal punishment recuses child abuse.
Sweden brought in a ban on smacking in 1979 and more than 20 countries followed. However, according to a paper published in the International Journal of Criminology and Sociology in 2013, the rate of assaults increased dramatically in Sweden. Compared to 1981, criminal statistics in 2010 included about 22 times as many cases of physical child abuse, 24 times as many assaults by minors against minors and 73 times as many rapes of minors.
Similar findings were reported in an Oklahoma State University paper published in 1996 which stated 'Although the Swedish anti-spanking law was intended to reduce child abuse, the best empirical study since then indicated that the rate of child abuse in Sweden was 49% higher than in the United States one year after the anti-spanking law was passed.'
This paper ended by suggesting 'In conclusion, the available Swedish data indicate that we cannot reduce child abuse just by mandating that parents stop using corporal punishment. Parents also need new, effective techniques to replace corporal punishment if it is to be outlawed. It is even possible that mild corporal punishment may play an important role in preventing escalation to abuse for some parents.'
Australian Family Association spokesman John Morrissey has stated that his organisation 'defends the right of a reasonable parent to smack their child as part of a range of strategies to discipline them.' The Association argues, 'The fact that parents and teachers no longer smack children as much as in previous generations hasn't created a more peaceful society," Morrissey says. "(It) hasn't resulted in more pacified children or a gentler society. Look at Saturday nights in any capital city and the violence that young people are perpetrating.'
5. Moderate physical punishment will develop more resilient and successful children
It has been argued a little stress, even if it is physical, is part of becoming a resilient individual. In an opinion piece published in The Australian on August 5, 2013, Adam Shand wrote, 'The greatest challenge is to avoid the victim culture that is overwhelming the resilience of our kids. There are bigger things to worry about than a smack on the bottom.'
Adam Shand further wrote, 'My daughter's school recently advertised a seminar on how to deal with pampered kids who become useless, fragile adults. They quote from Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon's book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age.'
Professor Kindlon has claimed, 'The body cannot learn to adapt to stress unless it experiences it. Indulged children are often less able to cope with stress because their parents have created an atmosphere where their whims are indulged, where they have always assumed ... that they're entitled and that life should be a bed of roses.'
It has also been claimed that moderate use of physical discipline with young children will result in their being more successful in later life. A recent study found that children who are smacked before the age of six perform better at school when they are teenagers. They are also more likely to do voluntary work and to want to go to university than those who have never been physically disciplined.
The study, which was conducted by Marjorie Gunnoe, professor of Psychology at Calvin College in the United States state of Michigan, found there was not enough evidence to prove that smacking harmed most children.
Professor Gunnoe stated, 'The claims that are made for not spanking children fail to hold up.'
6. A large majority of Australians support parents' right to use reasonable corporal punishment to discipline their children
Surveys have shown that the overwhelming majority of Australian adults (80-90%) endorse the legitimacy and occasional necessity of mild physical punishments of misbehaving children by their parents. This points to the widespread belief that parents have a responsibility to administer reasonable chastisement if it is merited, and that such punishment is effective in disciplining children and controlling misbehaviour.
It seems reasonable to infer that the respondents are drawing upon their experience both as children and parents in reaching that conclusion. There is evidence of declining resort to physical punishment. For most parents, it seems, physical punishment of children is rarely random or capricious and is almost invariably tied to 'pulling them up' sharply and immediately with the intention of teaching them an understanding of acceptably social, or safe, behaviour.
It is unlikely that the corporal punishment of children by their parents will be made illegal in Australia, at least in the immediate future.
Popular support for parental corporal punishment of children is high and government intervention in the area is generally seen as intrusive and unlikely to be effective. It is an area that presents major enforcement issues as were it criminalised, the 'crime' would occur largely within the home and would raise major reporting difficulties. The many parents who approve the practice would be unlikely to report their own infringements. Significant physical abuse of children is already illegal and presents its own reporting issues; however, every Australian state and territory requires its mandatory reporting by all professionals involved in the care of children. Suspected significant physical abuse is a relatively easier crime to establish as there is more obvious physical harm shown to the child than results from moderate corporal punishment.
Supporters of the criminalisation of corporal punishment claim that the success of such a law would not depend on the number of apprehensions and prosecutions of offending parents. Rather, they argue, very few if any prosecutions would be expected. The purpose of the law would be to educate parents about the undesirability of using physical force to discipline their children. The law as an instrument of parental education rather than punishment is what is stressed by most of those who want the corporal punishment of children within the home made illegal.
Any government who introduced such a law would be promoting a policy that in the short term would be unpopular. Thus it would take a government seriously committed to taking action on the issue. Such a policy position is only likely to be arrived at when there is a long-term, hard body of evidence to support the benefits that could be expected from such a law. Currently, for example, there is dispute over whether outlawing parental corporal punishment reduces the incidence of more serious physical abuse of children. If such an effect were to be established it would be a compelling argument for making the smacking of children by their parents a crime.
Interestingly, changing the law to make smacking by parents illegal does seem to have an impact on popular attitudes. In countries where such a law has been introduced, support for it grows over time, as does popular disapproval of the use of corporal punishment against children by anyone, including their parents.
Newspaper items used in the compilation of this issue outline
H/SUN, February 4, 2012, page 12, news item by Nathan Mawby, `Don't ban smacking'.
H/SUN, February 3, 2012, page 1, news item by Elissa Doherty, `Time to ban smacking'.
H/SUN, February 15, 2012, page 5, news item (photo) by Alex White, `Tough love makes bad kids'.
H/SUN, February 25, 2012, page 3, news item by Janet Fife-Yeomans, `Judge backs smack'.
AUST, March 3, 2012, page 16, comment by Angela Shanahan, `In the hubbub over parenting styles, it's not just the mother's story'.
AGE, April 6, 2012, page 9, news item, `No cane, no gain in the behaviour of students'.
AGE, July 29, 2013, page 18, editorial, `Why smacking should be regarded as a crime'.
AGE, July 26, 2013, page 2, news item by Rachel Browne, `Outlawing the smack'.