Suggestion to ban the physical punishment of children inevitably meet with arguments that parents should have the right to discipline their children as they see fit without state interference. Such claims perpetuate perceptions of children as parents’ possessions without rights to the dignity and respect afforded to adults in a civilised society.
In the not-so-distant past, husbands claimed similar rights to “discipline” and control their wives, and teachers found it difficult to imagine how to control school children without resorting to the ruler, cane or strap.
Society has progressed – to a degree. Hitting intimate partners, employees, infants in day care centres and school children is no longer tolerated . A husband, boss, child care worker or teacher in most countries cannot defend a charge of assault by arguing that they were just carrying out “reasonable chastisement”.
Why then is it such a big step to remove this defence in cases where a parent assaults his or her child? Why are small, vulnerable, and impressionable children singled out as the only people who can legally be hit?
Children are more likely to respect parents who teach them constructive ways to behave.
The impact of physical punishment
Some adults argue that hitting children, euphemistically described as “smacking”, is not violence. Yet children, whose voices have historically been silenced, have described how smacking hurts them physically and emotionally.
Many children also experience discipline that does not hurt and they want parents to know that alternatives to hitting are effective and more respectful. As one 12 year old put it, “you shouldn’t hit people… there’s a better way than hurting someone”.
There is increasingly strong evidence that parental physical punishment may adversely affect children’s development into adulthood. It has been associated with aggression, antisocial behaviour, and mental health issues throughout life, along with a heightened risk of abusing one’s children and intimate partners,“reducing physical punishment may help decrease the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population”.
There are always alternatives to physical aggression in response to challenging or annoying behaviours. Power relationships, anger, frustration, and loss of self control frequently motivate violent behaviour. Indeed, many parents admit that they resort to hitting their children when they are tired, angry or distressed, and that they later feel regret and remorse. Parents may even apologise to their children.
Sadly, on too many occasions, physical punishment exceeds even socially agreed limits. Children have been seriously injured and even killed.
Positive parent-child relationships
Most parents love their children and want to be the best parents that they can be. Children are more likely to respect parents who treat them with respect and teach them constructive ways to behave. Children thrive on positive recognition that motivates the repetition of behaviours parents want to see, and also enhances children’s self esteem.
A ban on smacking would help educate parents about positive discipline. Malingering
Some parents hit their children believing that it’s reasonable and acceptable. Often parents were physically punished as children, and believe it did them no harm.
Until we question this myth, without judging such parents, we will continue to deny children their rights. And we will continue to instill fear, anger and resentment, and teach children aggression and violence is a means of settling disputes.