A few weeks ago my friend, Brett, told me about a problem he was having with his wife. She'd come home from work in a bad mood, dumped all of her stuff on the dining room table, and spent an hour scrolling on her phone instead of helping him with the kids and dinner. He was mad and told her so. And she promised it was a one-off. It wouldn’t happen again.
Just a week later, it happened again. This time, he told me, he yelled at her. Then he hit her. It wasn’t hard. Just a slap, really. It was with an open palm, but he meant it. After all, he reasoned, she has to learn and talking doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Are you appalled? Angry? Does this story cross the line?
It’s untrue. Every word of it. But… that doesn’t change the way you felt about this scenario right? We rightly resist any justification for hitting a spouse or partner. It is intolerable.
But when it comes to our children, is it a different story?
I recently appeared on A Current Affair to discuss the topic of smacking. I was expecting a polite discussion. Instead, it was… well, intense. You can watch here .
The interview ignited yet another social media meltdown. You can see the kinds of responses I received below. (And we haven’t edited names. These people put their views in the public domain and I’m satisfied to keep them there.)
Epictetus said that “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”
There are some who are unwilling to be open to the idea that there could be information out there that they’re not aware of – information that could cause them to rethink their position. In fact, a 2020 study showed that parents with positive attitudes toward smacking perceived themselves as being more knowledgeable than someone like me - an expert who has spent decades doing proper science, and who researches, studies, and teaches others about that parenting science. To those people, nothing I say will be helpful. Conversation closed.
If, however, you’re willing to consider the possibility that there may be good reasons for finding alternative approaches to discipline, this conversation can be productive, and I’d welcome you into the discussion . For example, the person below visited my Facebook page and said this:
For those who are open to the discussion, this article is for you. In this article I’ll:
- Outline the main arguments people give to defend their “right” to hit their kids
- Summarise the research evidence against smacking
- Consider moral and ethical implications
- Explain what has happened overseas in countries where smacking has already been banned
- Consider the legal ramifications of making smacking illegal, and
- Share better disciplinary approaches.
But first, a definition.
What does it mean to smack?
Smacking has a lot of different definitions in psychological research, usually based on severity. The severity of smacking exists on a continuum from a light tap on the backside or hand for behaviour a parent disagrees with all the way through to aggressive hitting. Some people will call that “light tap” abusive. I’m not that extreme. However, defining the line where a punitive slap turns into abuse is difficult. And small slaps easily escalate.
In short, smacking means hitting a child. A slap. Just like my pretend friend, Brett.
Part One: Why do people support smacking?
The comments I received from people who opposed my view on A Current Affair followed a few central arguments. I’ll present them and respond to each one below.
1. The “I was hit as a child and I turned out fine” argument.
I’ve written extensively about this previously in an article that was published in the New York Times.
To put it sensitively: While we might be “fine”, we don’t know how we might otherwise be if we hadn’t been smacked. We don’t know if we would be more willing to be vulnerable and open with our emotions; if we would be less prone to anger or aggression; if we would have a better relationship with our parents and children; if we would be less anxious or sad; if we would have been better at listening to our inner voice; if we would still think that it’s ok to hit kids.
2. The “kids need to be smacked or they’ll be out of control” argument.
This is a straw man argument. It supposes that if we’re not hitting, then we aren’t providing discipline, structure, boundaries, and limits.
To be clear: Children do need limits. It is fair that we have behavioural expectations. They need to be taught, shown good ways to act, and guided toward moral behaviour.
The central point here is that we can do all of these things without hitting. In fact, research points to hitting as the least effective way to control children. Practically every disciplinary strategy is better!
3. The “you can’t reason with them so you have to hit them” argument.
We also cannot reason with elderly adults suffering with debilitating dementia. Should we hit them too?
Obviously the thought is abhorrent. What do we do with an ageing relative who is no longer able to reason or speak? We patiently and lovingly work with them and work with the environment to make things more comfortable and manageable. The same principle applies with our children.
4. The “but what if they’re about to run onto the road” argument.
Please don’t hit your child if they’re about to touch a hot stove, run onto a road, or stick a fork into a power outlet. Don’t hit them if they’re about to beat up their sibling, be disrespectful, or otherwise do something that places them or someone else at risk. What should you do instead?
Move them or move the hazard. Set up safety barriers and mechanisms. Monitor and supervise. Hitting makes no logical sense.
5. The “this is why our streets are overrun with disrespectful children and our gaols are full” argument.
For centuries, people have bemoaned “kids these days”. For example, Socrates said: “Children today love luxury too much. They have detestable manners, flout authority, and have no respect for their elders. What kind of awful creatures will they be when they grow up?”
Typically the young people in juvenile justice are children who come from homes where hitting is the norm. Arguments like this take an extreme position and suggest that the logical extension of not being hit is prison. It’s categorically untrue, easily disproven, and yet… people continue to argue for it to be true.
6. The “it’s the only thing that works” argument.
We’ll get to data shortly that shows that it doesn’t really work. But even if it did, there are better options.
At a deeper level, I see smacking defended because:
- Admitting it is wrong means indicating that our parents were far from perfect
- Admitting it is wrong means recognising we might have to change too.
Part Two: What does research say about smacking?
Surprisingly, some academic researchers, like those people I’ve cited above, also argue that smacking can be used effectively in some circumstances. Professor Bob Larzelere has had some robust discussions with me over the years making the following claims :
- Non-abusive spanking is effective to enforce time-out in clinically defiant children.
- Spanking only has negative outcomes when used too severely or as the only form of discipline
- Removing spanking as an option for discipline appears to increase societal aggression
In short, Professor Larzelere feels similarly to many Australian parents. This view says that now and then you need a sharp intervention to get your child’s attention, to act as a circuit breaker, and to move things forward. So long as it’s not severe, and so long as it’s not the only way we discipline our children, it’s fine to keep it in your parenting toolkit. Larzelere and the late parenting researcher, Diana Baumrind , are two of a staggeringly small number of researchers who would take this position.
I recognise how this view is appealing, probably because it is not extreme, it fits with current societal perspectives, and it has a pragmatic element that sounds sensible enough. Nevertheless, I reject it on empirical grounds but also on moral grounds. In the paragraphs below, I’ll show why.
Let’s start with the empirical argument.
There are warehouses full of studies on this topic. I’m only going to mention a couple, because they really do tell us everything we need to know. The first study to discuss is a meta-analysis conducted by Elizabeth Gershoff from Columbia University. (A meta-analysis is a study that analyses a whole bunch of studies that fit a certain criterion of scientific rigour. Thus, a meta-analysis is a particularly powerful way to understand a large body of research all at once.)
This meta-analysis reviewed 88 studies conducted over a 62-year period, totalling 36,309 participants. In this meta-analysis, smacking’s only positive association was that it was shown to create compliance quickly. (Although that doesn't mean children stay compliant, as an experiment shows kids who were smacked were back at another problem behaviour in less than 10 minutes in over 70% of smacking cases.)
Outside of that one questionable “positive”, smacking was associated with nothing but negatives. The more a child was hit:
- The lower their moral internalisation of rules (meaning they disobey rules when left alone),
- The more aggressive the child was likely to be
- The greater the risk of delinquent and antisocial behaviour (such as truancy and underage drinking),
- The poorer the quality of relationship between parent and child,
- The worse the child’s mental health (specifically depression),
- The more likely it was that the child would be a victim of physical abuse,
- The greater the chances of increased adult aggression,
- The more likely there would be adult criminal and antisocial behaviour,
- The greater the risk of adult mental health challenges, and
- The more increased the risk was that they would be guilty of abusing their own child or spouse.
I read a list like that and I feel despondent. It’s a concerning list. It’s the kind of list that makes a believer (in not smacking) self-righteously tsk their tongue and say “see, I told you it’s bad.”
More recently the Australian Child Maltreatment Study conducted by researchers at the Australian Catholic University has found (in preliminary data) that smacking a child nearly doubles that child’s risk of mental health issues (depression and anxiety) compared with those who are not smacked. People aged 16-24 were at significantly greater risk of mental health challenges if they had been smacked as children.
A similar study in Canada reported consistent findings: Smacking, according to these researchers, increases the risk of mental disorders, physical health conditions and defiant behaviours, even when accounting for other childhood adversities and child maltreatment.
The research evidence is clear – and has been for decades – that smacking brings no advantages but plenty of disadvantages.
But… Here’s the issue:
While this research has solid support, it doesn’t resonate with the millions of adults who were smacked as a child but who are now quite moral adults, weren’t particularly aggressive kids, have good relationships and mental health, haven’t suffered abuse or been aggressive or anti-social as adults, and would never abuse their own child.
It just doesn’t add up. It seems too extreme .
It sounds like mum warning a child not to drink alcohol at the party because it’s so dangerous – but the teenager has been drinking alcohol every Friday night with friends without mum knowing and thinks mum has no idea what she’s saying. Bad? Wrong? Nah…
Here’s what I think is happening.
The studies mentioned above and a meta-analysis of 45 longitudinal studies found that while smacking has a statistically significant negative impact on children, these effect sizes are typically trivial. Smacking accounts for only 1% of the variance in the outcomes. This means that only 1% of the differences observed between the people studied can be explained by the influence of smacking.
For those who aren’t familiar with this terminology, let me put it plainly:
For most people, the impact of having been smacked as a child is small or insignificant on the variables we’re measuring. And for many it can be hard to draw a straight line from the smacking they received to the way they are now as an adult.
But while 1% can seem so trivial it’s hardly worth mentioning, when we consider how many other things impact the life of a child (like how much screen time they get, what school they go to, if their parents work or stay at home, the crime rate where they live, their socio-economic status, etc.), it’s astounding that we can find a correlation between smacking and behavioural outcomes measured years later at all!
The empirical research shows:
- Smacking is not associated with any positive outcomes but all the negative ones
- The size of the impact of smacking, particularly at the lower end, is small… but it is measurable.
- The impact of smacking increases as the severity and frequency of smacking increases.
Part Three: The moral argument against smacking
So, if the effects of smacking, while real, are small, we need to add morality and logic to the empirical argument. So let’s dive in. My arguments include:
- It’s wrong to use violence to solve problems. This is always so, but it is particularly the case when the power imbalance is great, such as when we’re talking about a parent (big) and a child (small). Note, the power imbalance is about far more than just size. Control of resources, intellectual development, and other factors only exacerbate power in this relationship.
- Smacking is a substandard approach. There are other disciplinary strategies that are vastly superior in terms of encouraging compliance and, more importantly, internalisation. They are also much better in terms of long-term outcomes.
- Smacking teaches children that using force and “might” is acceptable as a means to solving problems.
- Smacking fails to consider the root cause of the problem behaviour.
My two favourite (and potentially strongest) arguments, however, are as follows:
- Smacking carries with it the risk of escalation. Studies show that parents who smack their children are at greater risk of escalating the severity of their punishment and becoming increasingly aggressive/violent.
- And children who are not smacked do not experience worse outcomes than those who are. It’s impossible to argue that children do better with smacking. That’s already been established. But if it can be shown that children who are not smacked don’t do any worse than those who are, the argument is over.
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages smacking because:
“There is no need for corporal punishment based on the research. We are not giving up an effective technique. We are saying this is a horrible thing that does not work.”
If you are in a position where you can smack your child, you’re also in a position where you can distract, restrain, negotiate, understand, collaborate, problem-solve, or hug. These alternatives may feel less immediate and may be more inconvenient, but each is superior in terms of internalising moral norms and achieving positive outcomes.
Furthermore, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child declared that children should be protected “from all forms of physical or mental violence”. This leaves no room for legalised violence such as spanking. If it isn’t ok to hit your wife, your father, your co-worker, or your neighbour, why should it be considered ok to hit your child?
Part Four: What happens when we ban smacking?
There are now 63 countries around the world who have chosen to make smacking illegal. They’ve drawn that line in the sand and said “we don’t do that anymore”. What does the data show in those countries? Are children worse off for not being hit? What has happened to society? Has it disintegrated?
Sweden was the first country in the world to ban smacking (back in the very late 1970s). There were three goals with banning corporal punishment:
- alter public perceptions regarding the use of physical force in discipline
- increase early identification of child abuse
- promote more supportive interventions for families
What happened? Support for corporal punishment has decreased from 53% in 1965 to 11% in 1994. There was also increased awareness of child physical abuse, but it’s important to note that there has not been greater criminalisation of caretakers. That means parents aren’t being locked up, and children aren’t being removed from their families, even when accusations of smacking are made. Moreover, support and care interventions have become more preventative and voluntary since 1982. Overall, the goals of the Swedish ban on corporal punishment have been successfully met.
Since then, a 2018 study looking into whether smacking bans resulted in less youth violence offers compelling outcomes. The study involved 403,604 adolescents across 88 countries. Researchers found the following:
- Countries with a full ban on corporal punishment had a reduced frequency of adolescent fighting (69% the rate in males)
- Other variables, such as income per capita, homicide rate, and weapons bans did not relate to the prevalence of fighting
The researchers stated that “Country prohibition of corporal punishment is associated with less youth violence… these results support the hypothesis that societies that prohibit the use of corporal punishment are less violent for youth to grow up in than societies that have not.”
Part Five: But how would a smacking ban even work?
Some people are concerned that children will be taken from their parents. They worry about false accusations. They dread the potential for government interference inside the walls of their home.
I raised these concerns with Professor Daryl Higgins, Director of the Institute of Child Protection Studies. He responded by saying:
“The proposed legal changes are not to child protection laws, but to assault laws (in the crimes act in each state). These laws already exist – but they allow for the defense of ‘reasonable chastisement’. The proposed legal changes are to remove, in order to align children’s right to protection under the law to the same protections that all adults currently have.
Fears of increased state involvement are understandable, but we can be confident that it won’t occur. Firstly, for matters to be tried at court, charges have to be laid by police (not child protection officers). And police can have discretion (e.g., to refer a parent to a parenting program or support services). The Department of Public Prosecutions in each state would also have to make the case that pressing charges in any instance would be in the ‘public interest’.
Secondly, the evidence from countries where such changes in law have been made have not translated into large numbers of parents being charged – such as in New Zealand.”
Changing the law isn’t about locking parents up or separating families. It’s about signalling to the community that children are valued and ought not to be hit.
Part Six: What do we do instead?
I have spent the best part of two decades helping parents find positive strategies to guide children successfully. See the following links for a range of options for all kinds of challenges you might face.
- What to do when kids won’t listen
- 10 steps to reducing sibling conflict
- How to stop yelling
- How do I stop the cycle of abuse?
- My son is hurting people
- How to survive “One of Those Days” as a parent
- What your kids need when they won’t do what they are asked
- How do I control my child’s angry outbursts?
- How to discipline children effectively without using consequences or punishments
- How to deal with child to parent aggression
- What to do when your child lies to you
These resources are ALL free.
Additionally, the Happy Families podcast is Australia’s #1 podcast for parenting and family. It has countless episodes devoted to helping you raise your children with love and kindness. See below for a handful of examples that can help – but listen to them all because there’s nuggets in every episode.
- You’re the (Inner) Voice
- Pushing Our Buttons
- I Swear You Shouldn’t Be Saying That
- All The Rage - Taming Parental Anger
- Teaching Kids Values and Respecting Differences
- The Moment That Matters Is Now
- 10 Fights Worth Having With Our Kids
- 6 Phrases to Transform Your Relationship With The Kids
- Keeping Control and Letting It Go (Screen Time)
- How Criticism Affects Your Child
Oh, and those resources are ALL free too!
Finally, our Happy Families Membership is a premium product that gives you access to thousands of dollars worth of webinars and resources to upskill your parenting in ways that improve you and your children (all without hitting).
The details are here – and the testimonials provide the reassurance you need that this is a worthwhile investment in your family.
Smacking does not exist in isolation. It is part of a bigger picture - a culture that burns parents out, removes children from environments that are healthy (by placing them in front of screens or building academic pressure rather than having them be active and connect with others), and expects more than is developmentally appropriate. All of these factors reduce our ability, as parents, to be at our best.
Our job as parents is not to add to our children’s struggles and challenges. It’s to help them manage them well. Smacking fails here. But it’s something that, with intention and with practice, we can control. We can do something about it.
Since A Current Affair went to air, my inbox and social feeds have received messages like this, from Pat:
We can do better than we have done in the past. It’s time to draw a line in the sand and say, simply, “We don’t do that here anymore.”