The Debate – Smacking Your Children?

Written by Tim Barnes-Clay

Whether or not you should smack your child has become an increasingly controversial topic in the UK. Whilst it is legal to do so as long as it does not cause visible bruising, grazes, scratches, swellings or cuts, it is still a hotly debated subject.

With arguments stating it is ineffective in behaviour management and that it causes psychological and physical damage, many charities and parent groups want to see the act banned. However, there are also a number of arguments stating the opposite, claiming it’s good for discipline and that as long as they still feel loved, no real harm is done. Whilst both sides present strong arguments, it’s important to get the facts straight first and where better to start than with the legal opinion on parents smacking their children.

Laws and Order

The Children’s Act 2004 makes it illegal to hit a child if it causes bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches, which is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. Essentially, as long as it amounts to nothing more than “reasonable punishment” it is acceptable, yet other factors also come into play such as the age of the child and the nature of the smack. It becomes “unreasonable” if a mark is left or if a belt or a cane is used in the process.

There a number of groups who strongly oppose the act and believe parents option of smacking their children should be banned. The Children’s Commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson for instance has said: “Personally, having been a teacher, and never having had an issue where I’d need to use physical punishment, I believe we should move to ban it. Because in law you are forbidden from striking another adult, and from physically chastising your pets, but somehow there is a loophole around the fact that you can physically chastise your child. It’s counter-evidential.”

Ms Atkinson is not alone in her opinion, with support shown from children’s charity NSPCC, who believe smacking is “ineffective and harmful to children” and that “there are more positive ways to discipline children and a clear message that hitting anyone is not right would benefit all of society.”

Hot topic

The physical and psychological damage of smacking has come under much scrutiny in recent years, with numerous studies on the subject. One study from researchers at Tulane University has suggested that smacking your children makes them act out more in the long run. Almost 2,500 children were part of the study in which those found to have been smacked more frequently at the age of 3, were more aggressive by the age of 5.

According to Dr Catherine Taylor, community-health-sciences professor at the university: “The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 increased by 50% if he had been smacked more than twice in the month before the study began.” However, whilst this study has revealed evidence of the negative impacts of smacking your children, the way in which you smack your child can equally have huge importance in the matter.

One study from a team of researches of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine has suggested that smacking can have a positive impact so long as it measured out with love and affection or the “perception of maternal warmth”.

Dr Miguelina German, lead author, claims that “attachment theory”, being a warm and responsive parent is one of the main factors in producing secure children. The idea is that there will be always be an underlying affection for the child, that guarantees against feelings of rejection, even during a punishment, therefore not automatically causing anti-social behaviour.

“The relationship between the two is conditional and subject to other factors,” she said, “there are always other influences at play that can lessen their potential harm on the young child.”

Ministers have also shown support to parents who smack their children, as long as it is within reason. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling for instance has admitted to smacking his children in the past, and believes the acts serves its purpose: “You chastise children when they are bad, as my parents did me. I’m not opposed to smacking. It is to be used occasionally. Sometimes it sends a message – but I don’t hanker for the days when children were severely beaten at school.”

The disciplinarian view then sets the idea that smacking your child will send a message to them, serving more as a incentive against misbehaving than as a regular form of discipline.

The ‘positives’?

To further this perspective, research has been conducted to discover whether disciplinarian actions can have positive effects on children. According to a 2009 study by researchers from London’s Institute of London, children are more likely to grow into better-adjusted adults if their parents were disciplinarians. Traditional “authoritative” parenting such as being both firm but caring leads to more “competent” children. Therefore similarly to Dr German’s research, as long as the smack is reasonable and is seen as more of a deterrent against behaviour and combined with love and affection for the child, it can have a positive effect on the child.

Nonetheless, many groups still oppose such action against children, most notably NSPCC. Having campaigned for it to be illegal, they believe it just “teaches children to be violent”. Even “reasonable” smacking is deemed over the top, as they seek to find “constructive methods to teach their children the difference between right and wrong.” This view is supported by child psychologist Dr John Irvine, who believes: “Smacking is meant to hurt. I’m about where you try to heal the child, not hurt the child. Kids who get hit a lot often grow up to become hitters, you don’t get good kids if you belt them.”

Whilst both sides present strong arguments for and against smacking children, with evidence on either side suggesting it can both be positive and negative, what it boils down to is dependent on the situation. Some parents may still choose to be more physically disciplinary with their children, while others choose not to.

Smacking your child can have negative consequences but still create plenty of positive outcomes. One of the main issues is that there is often a thin line between discipline and abuse; what is seen as reasonable for one parent may not be for another. 

Smacking your child is legal to certain extents but should be avoided. However, this is not always possible, and when those occasions occur, it should only be used as a warning against bad behaviour instead of a standard response to your child misbehaving.