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Let’s talk about making smacking children illegal

Children are the most vulnerable and dependent members of our society but it’s still legal to hit them in Australia. bixentro/Flickr

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) is today launching a call for law reform regarding the use of physical punishment to discipline children. Noting the harms of smacking children, it’s urging parents and caregivers to consider alternatives to discipline.

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.

I’ve borrowed this quote from world-renowned UK child psychologist Dr Penelope Leach’s book Children First, because it highlights the social inconsistency regarding physical punishment.

Children are the most vulnerable and dependent members of our society but it’s still legal to hit them in Australia.

They should not be subject to physical punishment and it’s important to resolve the legal inconsistency that allows it so the law protects children from assault to the same extent it does everyone else.

Most 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.

But it remains lawful for parents in all jurisdictions to use physical punishment for children. In many places, this right is stated explicitly, often using the term “reasonable” to describe the permissible level of force or chastisement.

There are many aspects to this emotionally-charged issue - legal, ethical, moral, the distinctions between punishment, discipline and abuse and the perceived intrusion into parenting choices.

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.

There’s clear evidence that physical punishment may be harmful in the long term – so why take the risk?

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.

In the 33 countries where the physical punishment of children is illegal, there’s evidence that both the legal change and the accompanying public dialogue change community attitudes to physical punishment of children.

In 1979, Sweden became the first country to explicitly ban all forms of corporal punishment of children. The proportion of Swedes who considered physical punishment (even in its mildest form) necessary for child discipline halved between 1965 and 1981, and halved again by 1994.

A similar pattern is apparent elsewhere. A survey conducted in 2012 found 63% of New Zealand parents had never, or only rarely, smacked their child since the law there changed in 2007.

Countries that have banned the physical punishment of children have also seen other benefits including increased early identification of children at risk of abuse, and very low rates of mortality associated with child abuse.

While Australian community attitudes to physical punishment for children remain divided, support for smacking children seems to be on the decline. In 2002, 75% of surveyed Australian adults agreed with the statement that it is sometimes necessary to smack a naughty child. This had decreased to 69% in 2006.

Parents and caregivers want to do the right thing for their child – and they should be supported to consider more effective and positive methods for managing difficult behaviour.

It’s time for a public discussion of this important issue. Making corporal punishment illegal may take time to be become accepted and instituted in Australia, but let’s start that process.

You can get a copy of the RACP’s Physical Punishment of Children Position Statement here.

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