By John Reddington MAPS

ONE OF the most critical social issues confronting psychologists today, I believe, is consideration of the abolition of physical force as a disciplinary measure in the home and school. Pressure to address the issue in this country, the United Kingdom and the United States has met with only minimal response.

In the UK, for example, the status quo allowing the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ has been maintained for England and Wales (Department of Health, 2000). Scotland alone banned the use of physical force in 2002, but only for children under three years.

In Australia, laws differ by State. In Queensland corporal punishment was banned in schools by a cabinet decision of 1995, but this is still not legally binding, and the paradoxical situation has arisen, where, in spite of the school ban, teachers can:

“...continue to have defence to a criminal charge of assault if their conduct is determined to be reasonable under the circumstances.” (Personal communication R. Welford, Attorney General, Queensland, Feb 21, 2002).

In doing so, teachers are able to fall back on the Queensland law on Domestic Punishment (1899), which states:

“It is lawful for a parent or person in the place of a parent, or for a school teacher or master to use, by way of correction, discipline, management or control, towards a child or pupil, under the person’s care, such force as is reasonable under the circumstances.” (Section 280, Criminal Code).

Obviously ‘reasonable force’ is subject to wide interpretation by parents. It has also led to controversial legal decisions such as that in Queensland in 2000, in which a Chief District Court Judge did not record a conviction against a mother who caused serious bruising to her nine-year-old son by beating him with a two-metre-long tree branch. The Judge went on to justify her decision by finding that this type of punishment had been commonly employed against people now aged 40-50 years. An appeal against the outcome was refused.

Smacking still seems to be supported by a majority of Australians. In an attitudinal survey of the Victorian public (Tucci, Saunders & Goddard, 2002), 75% of Victorians (as opposed to 88% of British respondents) agreed that: “Parents should be allowed by law to smack a naughty child who is over five years old.” (For children aged two to five, this reduced to 50%, and below two to 16%).

Tindle (1990) in a qualitative analysis of the response of 46 student-teachers who were asked whether they felt it was right to smack children, found many responses to be ambivalent. For example: “Yes, it is the only method to get results; but not to condone violence.” To all this can be added the UK report (Nobles & Smith, 1997), which found that 75% of mothers admitted to smacking their babies aged one or less.

However, if the law were changed, just smacking (non-abusive) would probably be seen as ‘trivial’ by the courts, but they would also have to consider whether the smacking supported additional emotional abuse and/or humiliation, and whether it could be considered as the starting point, incrementally, for more serious abuse by parents. A survey of 1000 adults (UK) instigated by Children Are Unbeatable (1999), reported by Leach (2002), found that: “If they could be sure that parents would not be prosecuted for trivial smacks, 78%of those with dependent children would support a ban on parental smacking (p.8).”

Durrant (1999) carried out a detailed analysis of the degree of success Sweden has achieved since legally banning corporal punishment in 1979. She concluded: “The Swedish ban has been highly successful in accomplishing its goals (p.435).” Furthermore, the following countries have now followed Sweden’s lead: Norway 1981; Finland 1983; Austria 1989; Cyprus 1994; Denmark 1997; Latvia 1998; Croatia 1999; Germany 2001; Israel 2001; and Scotland 2002 (children under 3 years).

In changing the law, Sweden aimed to: “Explicitly prohibit all forms of corporal punishment of children by caretakers in an effort to (1) alter public attitudes towards this practice, (2) increase early identification of children at risk for abuse, and (3), promote earlier and more supportive intervention to families (p.435).”

Durrant statistically analysed certain trends (levels of best fit) between 1979 and 1999. These trends are outlined below, with summarised conclusions:

  • Public support for corporal punishment. Support for corporal punishment declined from 53% in 1965, to 20% in 1981, and 11% in 1994. Further-more, support from adults over 54 years was three times as likely (18%) as opposed to those under 35 years (6%).

  • Reporting of child physical assault. No significant increase in the highest category (aggravated assault) was shown between 1987 and 1996, indicating that the seriousness of assaults reported had not risen.

  • Prosecution rates. Prosecution rates (including full court prosecutions and summary punishments) showed a declining, but non-significant trend between 1984 and 1994.

  • Intervention by the authorities. The number of children provided with one or more support measures tended to increase from 1982 to 1995, although this trend was not significant. There was, however, a highly significant decrease in compulsory support measures and an increase in voluntary assistance taken with parental consent.

In addressing the correlation between the cessation of corporal punishment and a reduction in adolescent and adult violence, Durrant found the following confounding variables: “The importation of violent videos and TV programs, an increase in youth unemployment and the erosion of social welfare programs (p.446).” These factors may have affected an increase in reports of youth assault against peers. Finding that the incidence of rape and homicide by youths from 15 to 17 years had not increased from 1975 to 1996, Durrant concluded: “In the case of reported assaults against children, increased reporting of youth assault against peers appears to be largely due to increased awareness of the problem (p.445).”

However, Leach (2002) reported on several longitudinal studies which controlled for baseline behaviour (Brezina 1999, Gunnoe & Mariner 1997, Simons, Lin & Gordon 1998, Strauss & Paschall 1998).She found: “[An] overall harmful effect for parental corporal punishment, including: a five-fold increase in toddler non-compliance; a four-fold increase in assaults on siblings by children under 10; double the rate of physical aggression in school playgrounds among six year olds; and an increased likelihood of substance abuse and criminal convictions in adolescence (p.9).”

Changing the laws

In Australia, moves to consider changing the laws on the use of force by parents have been both clumsy and confusing, where they have existed at all. In New South Wales, politicians have put forward proposals (to be enacted in December 2002) to outlaw striking children around the head or neck, the use of belts or sticks, or harm lasting more than a short period. This led to the following comment:

“I am not convinced that an exhaustive legislative prescription of what parents can and cannot do would come any closer to achieving the physical and emotional safety of our children than the present scheme in the Code.” (Personal communication R. Welford, Attorney General Queensland, Aug 16, 2002).

However, Scandinavian responses to this problem have been positive and explicit. Swedish law states:

  • Children are entitled to care, security and a good upbringing. Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to physical punishment or other injurious or humiliating treatment (Parents’ Code, Section I, Chapter 6).

  • Should physical punishment meted out to a child cause bodily injury or pain which is more than of very temporary duration, it is classified as assault and is an offence punishable under the criminal code …although as before trivial offences, will remain unpunished (Ministry of Justice, 1979).(Quoted in Durrant, 1999, p.436).

The Norwegian law simply states:

  • The child must not be subjected to violence, or in any other way be treated so as to harm or endanger his or her mental or physical health (The Children Act, Number 7, Section 30, April 1981).

Australians should also note the recent the statement made by Family Court Chief Justice Alastair Nicholson:

“I am astonished that in this country in the 21st century it is still a defence to a charge of assaulting a child that you were engaged in reasonable chastisement. The fact there is a mindset that enables parents to chastise children means that some parents take that much too far (Courier Mail, 6/7/02, p.18).”

The crucial first step

Clearly, for the “culture” of corporal punishment to decline, a change of law is the first crucial step. (Laws that address child abuse and neglect involving mandatory reporting are not enough, as they are concerned with measures taken after the event.)

To try to effect change in the laws around Australia, the recently published position paper of Australians Against Child Abuse (2002), Please don’t hit me, by Joe Tucci, Bernadette Saunders and Chris Goddard of the Child Abuse and Violence Research Unit, Monash University, was sent to all Attorneys General in Australia. This paper promotes a national inquiry into the status of the law on the physical punishment of children.

Unfortunately, the APS Punishment and Behaviour Change Position Paper of Sanson, Montgomery, Gault, Gridley and Thomson (1996) makes no mention of the abolition of physical force in the home, although it does recommend that: “State Governments … adopt policies … to prohibit the use of corporal punishment in the schools(p.163).”

No explanation is given as to why one area is supported and not the other. They suggest, as alternatives to punishment, parental practices which, “involve explanations of others’ perspectives and feelings, clear limit setting, explaining reasons for rules and requests, rewarding appropriate behaviour and eliciting ideas and reactions from the child”, besides advocating family, school, and community programs (p.163).

However, I believe it is unlikely that parenting, school and community programs will have any major effect unless cultural change is first addressed by legislation.

Some suggestions

The following are some suggestions that psychologists may wish to pursue in encouraging the abolition of corporal punishment:

  • Propagate within the general community through forums, newspaper articles etc., that children should be treated equally with adults in matters of assault.

  • Explain that under a changed law ‘trivial’ offences on their own (eg. non-abusive smacking) would not be prosecuted.

  • Request the State Psychologists’ Registration Boards to lobby State governments to review changes to the present acts on domestic punishment. (This has already been carried out in Queensland).

  • Make suggestions about how new laws prohibiting corporal punishment can be tabulated succinctly.

  • Articulate suggestions concerning the types of penalties (eg. home visiting combined with mandatory parenting programs; community service etc.) which would appropriately apply for contraventions of reconstituted laws on corporal punishment.

  • Network with other psychologists so that a reformulation of the APS position on child punishment may be provided for consideration by the Director of Social Issues.

Finally, although it is possible that the establishment of a non-violent society for our children may never be a realistic possibility, I hope that psychologists will now take a leading role in moving, with courage and compassion, towards a non-punitive culture for children in Australia, through enlightened, rather than archaic legislation.

John Reddington is a Queensland psychologist in private practice.


Durrant, J.E. (1999). Evaluating the success of Sweden’s corporal punishment ban. Child Abuse and Neglect, 25(5), 435-448.

Leach, P. (2002). You can’t beat psychological input. The Psychologist, 15(1), 9-10.

Nobles, G., & Smith, M.A. (1997). Physical punishment of children in two parent families. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 2, 271-281.

Sanson, A., Montgomery, B., Gault, U., Gridley, H., Thomson, D. (1996), Punishment and behaviour change : An Australian Psychological Society position paper. Australian Psychologist, 31(3), 157-165.

Tindle, E. (1990). A survey of teacher-students: Their attitudes to the employment of physical punishment. Unpublished report, Queensland University of Technology, Queensland.

Tucci, J., Saunders, B., Goddard, C. (2002). Please don’t hit me. Melbourne, Victoria: Australians Against Child Abuse.