Even ‘just a little smack’ is no longer okay

05 September 2017

By Dr Bernadette J. Saunders

Physical punishment, including ‘smacking’, is traditional but inappropriate and unnecessary. It is most frequently used to discipline young children, but remains lawful in Australia up to 18 years of age.

Increasingly recognised as an act of violence, corporal punishment is legally prohibited in most Australian schools and other institutional settings. New Zealand and Ireland are the only English-speaking countries to have taken the progressive step of banning it in the home also. But worldwide, corporal punishment is banned in 52 countries in all settings, including the home.


Legal prohibition of physical punishment aligns with the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC, particularly Articles 19(1) and 37) and with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s call for all countries to

“prohibit all forms of violence, however light, within the family and in schools, including as a form of discipline”.

Australia ratified the CRC in 1990. In spite of this treaty obligation and recurrent UN criticism, our governments have resisted banning all forms of physical punishment or removing the legal defence of parental assault of children as ‘reasonable chastisement’.

In NSW, for example, parents may lawfully assault their child below the shoulders, so long as it does not “cause harm to the child that lasts for more than a short period”. This law reinforces the long-held adult belief in justifiable parental assault of the most vulnerable and impressionable people in society – children.

Parents want to be the best parents that they can be. They would like their children to feel happy, safe, and to be nurtured to reach their optimal development. They appreciate their children’s smallest accomplishments, and they provide encouragement and support to their children as they learn to contend with life’s challenges and disappointments. Parents know that children are vulnerable and impressionable. Parents are children’s first role models.

Why, then, do parents who naturally cherish and protect their children maintain a belief that hitting and hurting their children is an acceptable and necessary means of discipline and control?

Positive discipline that teaches good behaviour does not equate with physical punishment, with its accompanying apprehension, emotional distress and negative impact on parent-child relationships.

Children learn that people who love you may also hit you, and that physical coercion is an acceptable means of achieving immediate compliance, even with unreasonable demands, and especially if the person resorting to violence is bigger and in a more powerful position.

Language is important. Words such as ‘smacking’ and ‘spanking’ serve to minimise, justify and condone responses to children that are no longer acceptable.

Even the words ‘physical discipline’ used to describe violent means of correction are neither reasonable nor defensible in scenarios in which parents are typically tired, angry, frustrated and possibly out of control. Parents often regret and even apologise for their violent reactions in the heat of the moment; sometimes responding to normal childhood behaviours that would not have received an aggressive response in less stressful circumstances.

Physical punishment breaches children’s rights to dignity and to physical integrity and their right to protection from harm. We now know from numerous scientific studies that physical punishment may impact children’s optimal development.

Physical punishment is a public health issue that can no longer be ignored. It risks harm to children and to the future adults that they will become.

Attitudes towards children in countries that legally condone their physical punishment are ambivalent. On the one hand, parents want what is best for their children yet, on the other hand, parents are willing to, or perhaps unknowingly, take risks with their children’s physical and emotional health.

We have long known that severe child abuse is often physical punishment gone wrong. A NSW study of child homicides concluded that “more lives could be saved by measures that reduce the incidence of child abuse, including the prohibition of corporal punishment of children”.

A recent analysis of 50 years of research involving 160,000 children associated physical punishment with negative outcomes, including increased aggression and mental health problems in both childhood and later in adulthood.

We know enough now to stop hitting our children. In light of this information, why are well-meaning parents still willing to take risks with their children’s optimal development? How many parents would drive with their children unrestrained in their car, or take them to the beach on a hot day without applying sunscreen to their sensitive skin?

With new knowledge, often reinforced by law, the health and safety of our children have been better ensured. Parents who were unenlightened in the past ought not to be poorly judged for responding to their children in ways which we now know are potentially harmful, including physical discipline.

Children are people with human rights entitled to be treated with respect, as well as provided with care and protection.

Children are rarely consulted about their views about, and experiences of, physical punishment, or indeed many other issues that affect them, despite their human right to ‘express views in all matters’ affecting them, with their views ‘given due weight’. Some children I have consulted in research about physical punishment observed:

If [adults make] physical contact with someone, like punching ‘em, it’s against the law. They could go to jail, they could be charged with assault. But if you’re a kid, and it’s in the house, it’s okay because they’re your kids. If you are a kid, it doesn’t really matter because . . . you barely have any say.

Hurting, lots of pain … crying. Sometimes you get a red mark…A smack, a big kaboom…like when the hand hits, going really fast and it hits you really hard, and ‘cause you’re only a child and parents are a lot stronger, that’s why it hurts.

[Hitting] hurts kids, and it upsets the adults if they’ve done it, so it’s stupid both ways; it hurts both people. [The parent’s] sad and the kid’s sad. What in the world is the point?

It is time to recognise children’s rights and to provide parents with helpful information and supports that promote positive parenting, so that responding to children in a violent manner is not even a last resort – even ‘just a little smack’ is no longer okay.

As a child insightfully suggested when talking about parental discipline, “there are better ways than hurting someone”.


Dr Bernadette Saunders is a senior lecturer in social work at Monash University in Melbourne. She is co-author of Physical Punishment in Childhood: The Rights of the Child.