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Childrens' perspectives missing from the “smacking” debate

By Bernadette Saunders - posted Thursday, 6 May 2010

Being a parent brings immense joy but carries enormous responsibilities. Most parents treasure their children and want to be the best parents they possibly can be.  Similarly, most children love their parents, want to please rather than disappoint or anger them, and look up to them as role models. Children need to feel loved and safe in environments where they can develop to their full potential. Parents and children value and thrive on relationships based on reciprocal respect, patience, understanding and positive communication. A child aged nine observed that parents “set the example like…how [children are] meant to treat people”, and an eight-year-old said adults do not “have to smack because you can choose”. 

The ongoing debate about whether parents should be allowed to “smack” children often overlooks the reality that both parents and children may suffer the short and long term effects of “smacking” – an ill-defined word that does much to minimise and condone hitting and hurting children physically and emotionally in the guise of discipline. A nine-year-old questioned smacking saying: “It hurts the kids, and it upsets the adults if they've done it, so it's stupid both ways...It hurts both people...If you're a parent, they're sad, and the kid's sad... It's kinda stupid really”.

A “smack” can refer to lightly hitting a child’s bottom; hitting a child anywhere on the body, including the face, with or without force; hitting a child once or repeatedly; hitting a child with an implement such as a belt, wooden spoon or indeed any object within reach, and it can also include hitting a child aged from birth to 18 years old. A “smack” may cause little physical pain or it could leave a red mark, bruise or even injure a child. An eight-year-old revealed “you could get smacked anywhere if you're really naughty but it should be on your hand if you're a baby, or your bottom or…thigh if you're a little kid”. 


All of these responses to children and young people may be referred to as “smacking”, and some continue to be considered acceptable and justifiable as discipline by some adults and even some children/young people in Australia. When unquestioned, aggressive disciplinary responses frequently continue from one generation to the next. A 12-year-old child said: “It’s giving the message that it's okay to smack…It's just a big cycle…people are gunna get smacked until someone finally doesn't smack in your family”, and an eight-year-old predicted: “When I’m older I'd only smack if I'd really need to. If they did something really bad…I'd prob'ly smack them next time they did it. If they did it again…I'll smack twice as hard: ‘If you do that again I'll do something worse’…If you're a smacking person, and that's all you do…you could start from a kinda tap and get harder and harder until as hard as you can.”
Children who have been “smacked” have talked about subsequently feeling disillusioned, resentful, confused, sad, hateful, humiliated, angry, fearful and reticent. It seems anomalous that many parents who normally love and protect their children, who are proud of their children’s smallest achievements, and who are concerned when their children are hurt or unhappy, do not question hitting them as discipline and causing them physical and emotional pain and distress; particularly given there are alternatives to “physical discipline” that are effective, respectful to children, do not model aggressive dispute resolution, and encourage children’s positive development.

Some parents continue to appreciate being hit even beaten as children and believe physical punishment teaches children useful lessons. They may use it only as a last resort and may only occasionally regret using it. Other parents admit that they resort to hitting children usually when they are feeling, tired, stressed or angry and sometimes when they have ‘lost it’ and could have reacted in a more considered way. They acknowledge that hitting children is a quick fix and models violence as a means of resolving conflict, and they often admit that they hurt their children more than they intended and have apologised to their children. Children said: “They usually do think that it's the wrong thing to do and sometimes…they tell me, 'Sorry’…Sometimes… they just can't bring themselves to say it” (11yrs); “They usually tell me sorry…they didn't think before they did it…'cause they are angry at you…” (12yrs).

Australia ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child 20 years ago yet children remain the only people in Australia against whom violence may be justified as discipline at home and in public.
Governments who have ratified the Convention are required to ‘take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse…or…maltreatment’ and to ensure that ‘no child shall be subjected to…cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’.

Removal of the defence to assault, referred to as lawful correction or reasonable chastisement, would not only prevent a parent who assaults his or her child causing injury from defending the assault on the grounds of acceptable discipline, it would encourage all parents to seriously consider the reasonableness of hitting children and promote the use of non-violent, constructive disciplinary methods. If physical punishment was legally discouraged in Australia, as has occurred in 25 countries including Sweden, Germany, Israel and New Zealand to mention a few, parents who unthinkingly use very mild physical responses to children as discipline need not fear prosecution nor do they deserve punishment, as a recent media headline wrongly suggested. Both the legal principle of “de minimus” and police discretion guard against this. As noted above, however, many parents admonish themselves for not choosing better disciplinary alternatives.

In 2005 the UN Committee recommended that the Australian Government should “take appropriate measures to prohibit corporal all States and Territories”, and also involve children in strengthening “awareness-raising and education campaigns…in order to promote positive, non-violent forms of discipline and respect for children’s rights, while raising awareness about the negative consequences of corporal punishment”. However, in 2010, children may still live in circumstances where they are sometimes too afraid to speak because they fear physical punishment.

Despite research that suggests that hitting children may negatively impact on children’s optimal development and the repercussions of this for society, children as people with human rights to physical integrity deserve at least the same protection from assault as adults. It should be no more reasonable to hit a child than it is to hit a person with a disability or, as was a norm in the past, for husbands to hit their wives, employers to hit apprentices, and masters to hit slaves.


Since the early 1960s definitions of child abuse have broadened but nearly 50 years later many people do not consider hitting children to be abusive. Children’s voices may still be silenced. When given the opportunity, however, children provide valuable insights.

A 13-year-old said: “Parents think hitting children is sort of their right...I guess parents have gotta learn to respect children”. A 10 year-old argued: “People should be treated equally, the same, like one shouldn't get more than the other in ways of better treatment, like treat them better just because they're older or younger”. A 12-year-old said “last time the adults prob'ly got smacked was when they were a little kid - and they wouldn't know what it felt like. I mean, if I went up and smacked them, then they'd know, but children don't normally go up to their parents and go, 'Stop behaving like that!' and smack them”. And a child, aged nine, observed “if [adults] physical contact with someone, like punching ‘em, it’s against the law…they could go to jail, they could be charged with assault…And that’s exact same for smacking. But…if you’re a kid, and it’s in the house, it’s okay because they’re your kids…If you are a kid, it doesn’t really matter…You barely have any say”.

If we listen to and respect children’s views, perhaps we might be less inclined to perpetuate this unnecessary response to children. Many children experience discipline that is not physically painful and many children want parents to know that non-aggressive methods of discipline are effective and promote positive parent-child relationships: “It’s just not the way...hitting, like you shouldn't hit people...because there's a better way…than hurting someone” (12yrs).

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About the Author

Dr Bernadette J. Saunders is a Senior Research Fellow at Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work at Monash University where she teaches Human Rights, Law and Social Justice. Her current research interests and publications focus on children's rights, child abuse, lawful correction, language and the media. She has presented at many national and international conferences, and she regularly contributes to media discussion of the "smacking" debate. She is the author of the recently published book, Saunders, B.J. & Goddard, C. (2010) Physical punishment in childhood: the rights of the child, Wiley-Blackwell.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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