Despite a steady decline in recent decades, the physical punishment of children remains common in British homes. The UK is one of only five countries in the European Union which has not committed to outlawing all physical punishment. British children have less protection from physical violence than adults – a clear violation of international human rights law. And, as a new study commissioned by a group of children’s charities shows, there’s ample evidence physical punishment can damage children and escalate into physical abuse. Author of the report, Dr Anja Heilmann from University College London makes the case for urgent action:
Sadly, it’s only the most extreme forms of child maltreatment that have dominated the headlines in recent years. As far as the media is concerned, there is a dearth of in-depth coverage of the issue of physical punishment, whilst UK governments have not implemented the kind of legal reform that has been happening in countries across the world.
Though there are variations between the nations of the UK, broadly all allow a defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ to a parent accused of lesser physical assault of a child in their care. In Scotland, the defence is one of ‘justifiable assault’.
In 2008, the Scottish Government said :
‘the current position ensures that the law gives children sufficient protection without unnecessarily criminalising parents who lightly smack their child.’
This position, however, is at odds with the substantial evidence base.
Much new research
Internationally, the past decade has seen a surge in the number of studies on the prevalence and outcomes of the physical punishment of children. The most recent substantial review in the UK was a 2008 study in Northern Ireland.
Our aim was to summarise the evidence that has become available since then. To do this we reviewed relevant studies published in English between January 2005 and June 2015. For a definition of physical punishment we used that provided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child:
‘Corporal’ or ‘physical’ punishment is any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.’
We defined a ‘child’ as anyone under 18. Our initial search yielded more than 1500 returns. We narrowed these down to 98 for in-depth review.
Clear evidence of negative effects
The good news is that the physical punishment of children is in decline. One study found that in 1998 in the UK, 61% of young adults reported having been smacked as a child, while in 2009 this was true for 43%.
Public attitudes have also shifted with the use of physical punishment becoming less and less acceptable and a higher proportion of parents doubting its usefulness.
On a less positive note, we found clear evidence of physical punishment continuing to lead to serious negative outcomes for the child. Four-fifths of the relevant studies found physical punishment was related to increased aggression, delinquency and other anti-social behaviour.
One study in Scotland found that children who had been smacked during their first two years of life were more than twice as likely to have emotional and behavioural problems at age 4 than children who had not been smacked. There was evidence that the more physical punishment suffered by a child, the worse the subsequent problem behaviour.
The evidence suggests that physical punishment is still harmful even when administered in a generally loving and positive family environment – the “loving smack” might be a myth. In addition, all studies that tested it found a link between physical punishment and more serious child maltreatment.
The negative effects continue into adulthood. Again, four out of five relevant studies suggest a link between childhood physical punishment and adult aggression and antisocial behaviour. One large study in the US found that participants who had been physically punished as children were 60% more likely to suffer alcohol or drug dependence.
Legislate and communicate
Though the UK is in a minority in allowing physical punishment, it is not alone. We also looked at five European countries with varying legislative regimes. In all we found a large and growing majority of parents striving to rear their children without physical punishment.
Those countries which had both legislated to give children equal protection against assault and promoted intensive, long-term campaigns of public education had been more effective in changing attitudes and behaviours than those which had pursued either strategy alone.
The international approach to children’s rights is clear: they should be equal to those of adults. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which states that all steps to protect children from physical violence should be taken, has been ratified by the UK. And the UK’s continuing failure to explicitly prohibit all corporal punishment in the home has been criticised by the committee that monitors implementation of the Convention.
“Further research needed” is often one recommendation coming out of a study like this. And there is still a need to know more, for instance, about the efficacy of measures to reduce the incidence of childhood physical punishment.
But no more research is needed to tell us that physical punishment has the potential to damage children and carries the risk of escalation into physical abuse. Our conclusions only reinforce the findings of the 2008 Northern Ireland study.
We need legislation now. And legislation backed up by a large-scale information and awareness campaign.
Equally Protected? A review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children by Dr Anja Heilmann, Professor Yvonne Kelly and Professor Richard G Watt was commissioned by NSPCC Scotland, CHILDREN 1st, Barnardo’s Scotland and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland.
Photo credit: ellyn.