In 2019 Scotland was the first UK country to pass a law bringing an end to the physical punishment of children. This change in the law was facilitated by an evidence review featured already on this blog about the damage that the physical punishment of children does to their physical and mental wellbeing. Now an international team of researchers has been commissioned by The Lancet to look even more closely at research in this area and to make key recommendations for policymakers, practitioners, and parents. Lead author Anja Heilmann outlines what the new review shows and why it adds impetus and urgency to calls for other countries including the rest of the UK to end physical punishment in all settings.
When we were invited in 2015 by three leading charities in Scotland to produce an evidence review of the short- and long-term effects of physical punishment on children, we hoped our findings would make a real difference. They did.
Our report demonstrated that there was ample evidence that physical punishment can damage children and escalate into physical abuse. Together with the charities that commissioned the report, NSPCC, Children First and Barnardos, we called for urgent action to provide children with the same legal protection against violence that British adults enjoy.
The report was at the heart of Scottish MSP John Finnie’s proposed Children (Equal Protection from Assault) Bill which was passed in 2019 and led to Scotland being the first UK country to outlaw all physical punishment of children by removing the defence of “justifiable assault”, and giving them the same protection as adults. In 2020, Wales followed with a Bill that abolished the defence of reasonable punishment.
Yet to commit
As things stand, 62 countries have prohibited physical punishment of children in all settings and a further 27 countries have committed to doing so. In the UK, England and Northern Ireland have yet to commit.
Globally, over 60% of children aged 2–4 years – that is 250 million children – continue to experience physical punishment and suffer both the short and long term damage this does to them physically and mentally. This suggests that parents are not receiving – or not believing – the message that it is both ineffective and potentially harmful to their children’s health and development. This may be because the research to date is summarised in hundreds of specialist research studies that are not easily accessible to parents or to health professionals whom parents consult for advice about discipline.
It is also true that the majority of countries have not prohibited physical punishment in homes, schools, or both.
Policymakers may not be aware of the strength of the research evidence against physical punishment or of the likelihood that legislating against physical punishment would prevent harm to children and benefit children and families through better child behaviour and well-being.
All this has led to The Lancet, itself part of a global commission seeking to develop foundations for a new global movement for child health that positions children at the centre of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), commissioning a further review from us and a wider team of experts who between them have decades of experience investigating the impacts of physical punishment.
Published today, (insert date) our comprehensive and detailed review summarises the most robust research from the last two decades and provides caregivers, practitioners, and policymakers with the evidence about the harm that physically punishing children does.
We reviewed 69 studies that met our criteria, including only those that examined physical punishment specifically and excluding studies of severe assaults against children. All the research we looked at was longitudinal, tracking the same children over time. Research of this nature is able to address a common concern in physical punishment research, which is that physical punishment might be a parental response to existing behavioural problems, rather than the cause of these problems. So it is important to stress that we only included studies that took the initial levels of the behaviours under study into account.
What these studies show is that while it is true that children with behavioural difficulties are more likely to be physically punished, the net effect of physical punishment is still detrimental once this is accounted for. In other words, physical punishment leads to further increases in these behavioural problems, potentially fuelling a vicious circle.
So while parents generally use physical punishment in the hope that it works to improve a child’s behaviour, there was overwhelming evidence in the studies we examined that the reverse was true. Physical punishment consistently predicts increases in behavioural difficulties such as aggression, antisocial behaviour and conduct problems even when initial levels of these ‘unwanted’ behaviours are taken into account. This means that the behaviours physical punishment is intended to correct are in fact made worse.
Physical punishment also has no ’benefits’ for other outcomes. Several studies looked at links between physical punishment and outcomes such as children’s attention, cognitive abilities, relationships with others, or social competence. There is no evidence that physical punishment leads to improvements in any of these.
Most worryingly, children who are the recipients of physical punishment are at increased risk of being subjected to more severe levels of violence.
What else is at play?
We wanted to know if family context may play a role in all of this – did the sex of the child make a difference? Was the cultural setting or ethnicity of the child important? Did parenting style have any buffering effects on outcomes?
What we saw was that girls and boys were both affected, with no conclusive evidence for important differences. We also saw no support for the idea that the impacts of physical punishment were somehow modified by a child’s ethnicity. And there was little evidence that overall parenting style or what’s sometimes referred to as ‘smacking with love’ in any way lessened the harms caused.
Last and by no means least, the more a child was hit, the stronger were the detrimental effects. This so-called ‘dose-response’ association provides really strong evidence of the direct links between and harms caused by physical punishment.
In short, these are the takeaways from the review:
- Physical punishment does not lead to better child behaviour over time
- Physical punishment leads to worse behaviour over time, even when initial behaviour problems are accounted for
- Physical punishment has no benefits over time for other outcomes such as attention, cognitive abilities, relationships with others, or social competence
- Physical punishment increases the risk of child maltreatment
- Physical punishment impacts a child’s outcomes negatively irrespective of other potential influences
- The more a child is punished, the greater the damage
The evidence is consistent and robust. Physical punishment is not an effective way of teaching children anything and has only harmful and damaging effects. Policymakers around the world have a responsibility to share this information with parents and carers, and to create societies where children are safe from physical punishment in the home and all other settings. In countries where laws have been brought in there is evidence of dramatic changes in social norms and the attitudes and behaviour of parents. The increasing number of countries that have reformed their laws show that claims from certain quarters that these laws somehow criminalise parents are unfounded. It’s also important that policymakers promote positive forms of parenting that focus on children’s understanding rather than punishment.
We understand that there are countries where change will be slow to come. But even here, low cost interventions like No Hit Zones that prohibit the hitting of children in specific settings have been shown to be effective.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has definitively stated that physical punishment is a form of violence that violates children’s rights to protection, dignity, and physical security. The UN General Assembly has also included the protection of children from all forms of violence as Sustainable Development Goal 16.2. Such human rights arguments, along with an aligned body of research, including this review, indicating physical punishment is harmful to children, have led to a growing consensus that physical punishment is unacceptable and that children should be protected from it.
There should be no longer a debate. Physical punishment of children should end now, everywhere.
Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies is research by Anja Helimann, Anita Mehay, Richard G watt, Yvonne Kelly, Joan E Durrant, Jillian van Turnhout and Elizabeth T Gershoff and is published in The Lancet