Smacking children; Is it right or wrong?

Everyone has an opinion about smacking children, but what does the law say and what other ways are there to discipline our children?

Introduction to Smacking Children; Is it right or wrong?

If you ask me if I believe that smacking children is an effective and appropriate way to discipline them, I would generally say ‘no’ – however this is certainly an issue that can ignite passionate debate. As a child I was certainly smacked and I grew up in a community where it was common practice. No one battered an eye if a mother smacked her screaming toddler at the supermarket. As a mother now myself, I would by lying if I said that I have never smacked my child. As an imperfect parent, there are many times that I have responded to my child’s undesirable behaviour in less than ideal ways – whether it be through ignoring, yelling or smacking – after all I am only human.

Smacking Children
Smacking is not illegal in Australia but how do we make sure lines are not crossed?

As someone who is always focused on self-improvement, and as an early childhood professional who has studied behaviour management and learned many alternative ways of dealing with particular behaviours at various ages, I have learned much over the years and now have a much bigger ‘tool kit’ in terms of managing my own child’s behaviour. Personally, I have found much better ways of managing behaviour than through smacking. But what does the law say about this highly controversial topic? Is smacking an outdated practice that should be done away with or is it a parent’s right to use corporal punishments on their children? Whatever your personal view is on smacking, it is useful to know the legal and ethical considerations as well as what the research tells us about this highly contentious issue.  

Is smacking illegal in Australia?

You might be surprised to learn that across Australia, smacking children as a kind of corporal punishment is considered perfectly legal. The practice of smacking is allowed to be used in the chastisement of a child for the purpose of controlling or correcting behaviour as long as the punishment is considered ‘reasonable’. The problem with this is that it isn’t completely clear what ‘reasonable’ means and only NSW has an actual definition of what ‘unreasonable’ corporal punishment looks like in terms of smacking. You can read the NSW law here, P:\acts\01\2001-89.wpd [PFP#1211076604] (nsw.gov.au), where it defines unreasonable force as being directed ‘to any part of the head or neck of a child, or to any other part of the body in such a way as to be likely to cause harm to the child that lasts for more than a short period’. All other states and territories remain unclear in terms of what ‘reasonable’ corporal punishment constitutes. With such a lacking in clarity, it is no wonder that people become confused about whether or not they are allowed to smack their children.  

Is smacking a child abusive?

The World Health Organisation (2006), defines child physical abuse as:

The intentional use of physical force against a child that results in – or has a high likelihood of resulting in – harm for the child’s health, survival, development or dignity. This includes hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning, poisoning, suffocating.

It also goes on to state:

Much physical violence against children in the home is inflicted with the object of punishing.

What this clearly tells us, is that there is a blurred line when it comes to utilising corporal punishment on children and when it can become abuse. If most physical violence in the home is inflicted with the object of punishing, then most physical violence is being inflicted as corporal punishment. If corporal punishment is legal, then does this separate it from abuse?

Smacking Children
There are many alternative ways to mange a child’s behaviour that don’t involve smacking. There needs to be parent education too!

The most difficult thing here is being able to define when smacking becomes ‘unreasonable’ force and then legally crosses over into being abusive. I am sure that most parents and caregivers who do smack would believe that they are not using ‘unreasonable’ force, but without a clear understanding of what this is there is no real line drawn and therefore it is difficult to know when it has been crossed. For me, there are just so many questions that arise, like how do you define a smack? Where on the body is it ok to smack? Can you use an object to smack or is it just an open hand that is acceptable? In addition to these questions, how can we know when it is ok to start and stop smacking a child – for example, how young is too young and how old is too old? Can you smack a toddler or a teenager? Without any clear guidelines around this practice, it is almost impossible to determine exactly if and when smacking can be considered appropriate.

If you do believe that somebody is crossing a line, or for further information about Child Protection issues, see my article on Child Protection; what parents and educators need to know.

What are the short term and long term effects of smacking children?

There has been quite a bit of credible research conducted in relation to smacking and the general consensus is that smacking is not an effective punishment that results in lasting behavioural changes. When a child is smacked, they might instantly stop the undesirable behaviour – and therefore smacking can seem to be effective in the short-term – but it does not actually teach the child what it is that you want them to do instead.

In terms of teaching children the behaviours that we want them to display, smacking can actually teach the child that it is appropriate to be violent or lash out when you are angry at somebody or something. Children who are smacked by their parents or caregivers are far more likely to hit other children when having difficulty in social situations because that is what they have learned rather than using effective communication skills to deal with the matter.

In regards to the long-term impacts of being smacked, the results are certainly not clear. Whilst the research does indicate that children who are physically punished have a higher risk of depression, anxiety and substance abuse later in life – there are also a large number of other factors that can complicate these results as a range of circumstances can contribute to these outcomes and not just a history of being smacked.

In 2016, a meta-analyses of studies relating to smacking was conducted and this research found that “there is no evidence that spanking does any good for children and all evidence points to the risk of it doing harm’. You can locate this study analysis here: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2016-17153-001

In addition to this, research conducted by Gershoff and Grogan-Kaylor in 2016 indicated that corporal punishment is associated with a range of negative outcomes for a child – including aggression, mental health problems and poor parent-child relationships. Whilst the validity of these studies can and has been debated, it does feel like smacking comes with a number of negative risk factors and therefore utilising alternative parenting techniques should probably be seriously considered.

Smacking Children
There are more negative consequences of smacking, than positive outcomes.


Should parents physically discipline their child?

Given the research and evidence around this, the short and simple answer is – probably not. That being said, smacking tends to be a generational practice that is learned and passed on down from parents to children. It can be difficult to break habits but learning new ways of responding to a child’s behaviour that doesn’t involve physical discipline is a very good idea. There is so much advice and support available now to help parents learn how to manage their child’s behaviour without resorting to smacking.

For some helpful information on positive parenting practices, check out this link: What is Positive Parenting? A Look at the Research and Benefits (positivepsychology.com)

Should smacking children be illegal?

There are a number of researchers who have been very outspoken about their feeling in relation to smacking and believe that it should most definitely be made illegal in Australia. Dr Patrick Lenta from the Law Faculty at the University of Technology Sydney has stated that be believes that smacking ‘violates children’s rights. It poses a risk of psychological harm to them. It’s just bad for children’. Whilst many will disagree with this view, it is important to remember that just because something has been done in a particular way in the past does not mean that it is appropriate or right. Many years ago it was considered perfectly safe to smoke around babies and children but when research showed us how damaging this can be, parents all across Australia stopped smoking around their children. When we know better, we do better – so a focus on education and support is probably the best approach before directly outlawing smacking.

What does Australia think? What are the statistics?

When it comes to the topic of smacking – Australians are a country divided. In 2019, a question about smacking was included in the Australia Talks National Survey and 47% of Australians indicated that they believe smacking is an acceptable form of punishment, whilst 38% disagreed.  Interestingly, a 2014 UNICEF report found that across the globe, 80% of children are smacked or physically punished by their parents.

Whilst many Australian’s might believe that smacking is acceptable, interestingly the Australia Talks National Survey also revealed that the practice is certainly getting less popular over time. The data indicated that the number of people that agree with smacking reduces as the age bracket rises. It appears like younger generations are preferring other parenting methods and this certainly aligns with growing education and support in relation to positive parenting practices.

Smacking Children
A staggering 47% of Australians believed that smacking was an acceptable form of discipline, a recent study found.

If you are interested in participating in the Australia Talks National Survey, you can access it here: Australia Talks – Find out where you fit, and how you compare to other Australians in 2021 – ABC

How can parents manage their child’s behaviour without smacking?

Dr Justin Coulson from Happy Families says that ‘discipline is teaching our children good ways to act’. His book What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family is a great resource for exploring a more gentle approach to parenting. This book is a practical manual that details strategies for relationship building with children so that parents can be emotionally available. Using this method, parents are able to utilise more effective discipline practices that directly teach children positive ways to act rather than punishing them. Dr Justin believes that his method will help parents raise children to become happy and resilient adults within a more peaceful and harmonious family environment. You can find Justin’s book here: What Your Child Needs From You – Dr Justin Coulson’s Happy Families

Smacking Children
A child will most likely absorb and understand the consequence of particular behaviour through a calm and rational verbal explanation, with loss of privileges, play time or screen time for example.

Another resource that I highly recommend is the Circle of Security Parenting Program. This parent education course is centred around relationships and the importance of being a ‘secure base’ for our children. The approach will help parents to know how to look beyond their child’s behaviour to view all behaviour as communication and therefore respond to their child’s needs in a kind and nurturing manner. If you are interested in learning more about the Circle of Security program, you can find detailed information here: Circle of Security – RANSW (relationshipsnsw.org.au) or in my review article on the Circle of Security.

Through my years of experience parenting as well as educating children, I have found the following to be very successful, depending on the age of the child of course;

DO’S:

  • Clear, firm voice explaining expectations and what is/is not permitted
  • Clear explanation of what will happen/not happen if child behaves in a particular way (for example, “If you don’t pack your toys away like I asked you, you will not be watching TV this afternoon”)
  • Count! (“I’m giving you until 3 to pick up your shoes, and if you don’t, you will not be having iPad time”)
  • Follow through with consequences (If you don’t, child quickly learns you are not serious about them and will be less likely to follow instructions)
  • Take away pocket money, screen time, privileges such as playing with particular things, or time with friends, if behaviour is defiant, or they have not followed instructions.
  • Reward positive behaviour and ‘catch them’ behaving well – praise them and encourage this behaviour, helping them understand how it makes you feel when they behave in this way
  • Communicate to the child WHY they need to do what is being asked or why they CAN’T do something. They need to understand the WHY
  • Try to make the child realise how it makes you feel when they don’t listen or behave in a particular way

DON’TS

  • Don’t use food as a punishment or a reward – this has the potential for creating an unhealthy relationship with food and balance of diet
  • Don’t threaten things which are not going to happen, or are unrealistic – first of all, child will soon see you are not serious, and it can create unnecessary fear (for example, “If you don’t do what I have asked, you can’t go and stay at your dad’s house anymore”, or “I won’t buy chocolate ever again” (Will that really happen?? haha)
  • Don’t use physical force or physical punishment, as it can easily cross the line into physical abuse
  • Don’t name call or belittle. You can label particular behaviour as unacceptable, without labelling or putting the child down. This can cross the line into verbal abuse
  • Don’t be afraid of a tantrum! A tantrum is a child’s way of communicating something. Sometimes they are testing boundaries, sometimes it’s a protest. You can read more in my article Embracing tantrums; 3 reasons to love a tantrum.

Summary of Smacking Children; Is it right or wrong?

As a huge believer in education, and as a former smacker, I truly believe that when we know better we do better. I don’t believe that parents should be hauled over the coals if they choose to smack their children, but I do believe that educating parents so that they can use other forms of discipline is a very good idea. The bottom line is that parents love their kids and want to do what is best to teach them how to become good people as adults. We all have the same goal but sometimes choose different ways of getting there. Learning about positive parenting practices is a great starting point and I encourage all the parents and caregivers out there to commit to educating themselves about this important issue. I just love this quote by Peter Krause;

‘Parenthood…it’s about guiding the next generation and forgiving the last’. Keep learning. Keep improving. Be kind.’

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