Smacking children: should it be made illegal?

Controversial debate reignited over whether smacking constitutes reasonable punishment or child abuse

A child stands on the beach in Arcachon on October 19, 2013, southwestern France. AFP PHOTO / NICOLAS TUCAT(Photo credit should read NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images)
(Image credit: 2013 AFP)

Europe's leading human rights organisation has criticised France for failing to ban parents from smacking their children, reigniting a controversial debate.

The Council of Europe said that the country's legislation on smacking was not "not sufficiently clear, binding and specific", according to the BBC. In France, violence against children is banned, but parents have the "right to discipline" their children.

Smacking is illegal in 27 of the council's 47 member states, with Sweden the first nation to explicitly prohibit all forms of corporal punishment in 1979. In the UK, parents are allowed to smack their children if it constitutes "reasonable chastisement and does not leave a serious mark," but experts continue to call for the practice to be banned outright.

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"There are many aspects to this emotionally-charged issue – legal, ethical, moral, the distinctions between punishment, discipline and abuse and the perceived intrusion into parenting choices," argues paediatrician Susan Moloney in The Conversation.

So, should it be made illegal? We weigh up the leading arguments:

Yes – it's child abuse

The Children's Commissioner for England, Dr Maggie Atkinson, argues that the current law gives pets and adults more rights than children, but acknowledges that the debate around smacking becomes "very emotional very quickly".

She believes it’s a moral issue."The morals are that, taken to its extreme, physical chastisement is actually physical abuse and I have never understood where you can draw the line between one and the other," she told the Independent, before adding that it would be better not to allow any smacking at all.

This is not about "prosecuting, persecuting and criminalising parents", John Cameron, head of Child Protection Operations at the NSPCC, told the Daily Telegraph. Instead, he argues that banning smacking would send a message to society that "children should have the same rights as adults in law to be protected from physical assaults."

Cameron argues that there is a "greater likelihood" of children becoming involved in criminal and anti-social behaviour as they grow up if they are smacked.

Many psychologists agree. Leading studies suggest that smacking is harmful to children as it can undermine trust in the relationship, increase levels of aggression in the child and cause mental health problems.

No – it's a normal form of punishment

France's family minister Laurence Rossignol said it was not up to the government to regulate how parents discipline their children. "We don't need a law, but we do need to collectively consider the usefulness of corporal punishment in bringing up children," she said.

Thierry Vidor, of the family association Familles de France, defended smacking, saying it was different to child abuse as a smack can sometimes be "an act of love" by parents, according to The Guardian.

The British government says its policy on smacking is clear. "We do not condone violence towards children. However, we do not wish to criminalise parents for issuing a mild smack."

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has defended parents' rights to smack their children, admitting that he had done so on an "occasional" basis and only when "really warranted". "It sends a message," he told the Daily Mail.

"It is difficult to see how any type of discipline may not be seen as harmful. The object is to challenge unacceptable behaviour," one British parent said in response to a YouGov survey. "Whether it is physical, verbal, or emotional, we are 'harming them'. Is it more harmful to call your child hateful disparaging names or smack them?"

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