We should ban smacking: Times change and societies progress

16 August 2017

by Apolline Kempter

“In all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

Australia must “take all appropriate measures to protect children from all forms of physical or mental violence, including while in the care of parents, legal guardians or any other person.”

– UN Convention on the Rights of the Child


Smacking can never be a proper way to teach a child how to behave when corporal punishment is known to have negative impacts on children.

Corporal punishment of children inflicts physical and emotional pain. Our acceptance of certain forms of violence against children reflects the low status of children in our society, presumed possessions of their parents, rather than individuals of equal dignity and rights to whom adults and governments owe special care and protection.

Children are the only category of people in Australia whom it is lawful to assault. Physical punishment is a breach of children’s right to equality before the law, and their right to safety and dignity. Quite simply, “all forms of violence” against children are prohibited by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Australia is bound to respect and implement in law and practice.

Discipline or punishment?

Many parents mistake punishment for discipline. Discipline is a necessary part of raising children to be decent people. It involves understanding and mutual respect, as well as tolerance, patience and good communication. These are key to children developing an understanding of what is right and wrong.

By contrast, punishment derives from anger, stress and pain.

To ban smacking is not to abandon discipline. It is to seek better forms of discipline that are less harmful and more effective.

Hitting children is a lesson in how not to behave. It teaches children that violence is an acceptable means of handling problems or conflict.

Corporal punishment doesn’t impart the lessons we may intend: children who are disciplined with violence have poorer moral regulation.[1] It simply doesn’t work.

Controlling behaviour through pain and fear does not lead children to take responsibility for themselves and their actions. They may suppress or conceal undesirable behaviour in the short term, but for the wrong reasons.

Effective, positive discipline leads children to do the right thing because it is right, not in order to avoid punishment.

Worse than ineffective, it’s harmful

It’s easy for us to lose sight of the difference in size and strength between adults and children, and the impact of that difference on violence directed at children. An English study has shown that parents often smack their children harder than they intend.[2] Changes in brain activity when using force interfere with our ability to judge how much force we’re using, and lead to an escalation in the use of force.[3]

In 2006, the United Nations conducted the first comprehensive global study of violence against children. The study found corporal punishment is related to a wide range of negative health, developmental and behavioural outcomes, such as poor cognitive development and school achievement, poor mental health and increased antisocial behaviour and aggression. Children who are hit are more likely to hit other children smaller and more vulnerable than themselves, and to grow up to use violence.

Cultural transformation

Smacking children is deeply embedded in Australian culture – in many cultures. After centuries of unseen and unheard violence, for many of us, to hit children seems normal and culturally acceptable. When asked, even some young people will profess support for corporal punishment. But most do not. As the UN Global Study found,

“Children consistently express the urgent need to stop all this violence. Children testify to the hurt – not only physical, but ‘the hurt inside’ – which violence causes them, compounded by adult acceptance, even approval, of it.”

Change is coming and momentum is growing. Fifty-two countries have prohibited all forms of corporal punishment of children, including in the family. More than half of those ban have occurred in the last 10 years. These countries provide examples of how a ban can work, and allay any concerns. At least 55 more countries are committed to introducing a full ban.

The landmark Campbell & Cosans case in Scotland is a remarkable story of human rights defenders fighting for the rights of children to live free of violence. At the time, the Campbells faced massive opposition. Now, "human rights is mainstream" in the UK. It illustrates how societies can and do change. And cultural change can begin with just one or two people taking a stand. Watch a 19-min documentary about the Campbells' struggle here.


To ban smacking is to recognise children as rights holders and to commit to cultural change.

Eliminating all violence against children will require both education and prohibition. Educating parents away from something that remains lawful is confusing and difficult. Education is much more effective when it reflects the same message given by the law.

The law is itself a powerful educational tool.

A ban will motivate parents to look into positive ways of bringing up their children and motivate professionals, politicians and media to resource and provide education.

Parents need support and tools to be confident and skilled at disciplining their children without any kind of violence, physical or emotional.

Banning all corporal punishment of children is to affirm children’s rights as equal to any other human being. Violence is not tolerated against elderly people or women or any other adult. Nor should we accept it against children.

Read more: The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children has FAQs about prohibiting all forms of violence against children, available in multiple languages.

[1] E.T. Gershoff (2002), ‘Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review’, Psychological Bulletin, vol 128(4), pp539-79 <http://www.endcorporalpunishment.org/pages/pdfs/Gershoff-2002.pdf>.

[2] S. Kirwan & C. Bassett (2008), Presentation to NSPCC: Physical punishment, British Market Research Bureau/National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

[3] S.S. Shergill, P.M. Bays, C.D. Frith & D.M. Wolpert (2003), ‘Two eyes for an eye: The neuroscience of force escalation’, Science, vol 301, p187.