Smacking children leads to a more violent society

25 Oct 2018 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 25 Oct 2018

In Northern Ireland, parents are still allowed to use corporal punishment as long as it is "reasonable chastisement". New research suggests this leads to more violence among young people than if it was banned outright.

Smacking children isn't what it used to be.

Teachers don't cane unruly pupils, parents don't whip their kids with belts - the spare-the-rod cliche has probably never been so out of step with our society.

However new research suggests our laws do not go far enough.

Academics at McGill University in Canada have found that, in countries where there is a complete ban on corporal punishment, there is less violence amongst young people.

Youth men are involved in 31% less violence, and young women in 41% less, when compared with nations where corporal punishment is allowed both in the home and at school.

Interestingly - and most relevantly for NI - countries that have controls on smacking but not an outright ban, such as the UK or USA, youth violence amongst males is at similar levels to places that have no ban at all (although it is lower amongst women).

Moreover, when the researchers took into account various other possible factors that could have an effect - such as a country's wealth or the quality of its support programmes for parents - they still found the same results.

Lead author of the paper Frank Elgar, of McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy, said: “All we can say, at this point, is that countries that prohibit the use of corporal punishment are less violent for children to grow up in than countries that do not."

He said that to find more specific results more research needs to be done in the next few years, including asking more probing questions of individual children about what happens at home which is "something that researchers have typically been shy to do."


The findings were based on a large amount of data: input from 403,604 adolescents in 88 countries, which the researchers believe is one of the biggest international studies on youth violence ever undertaken. Some conclusions include:

  • Frequent fighting was generally more common in young men (close to 10%) than in young women (about 3%)
  • Percentages varied widely from one country to the next (ranging from under 1% in Costa Rican young women to close to 35% in Samoan young men)
  • The associations between corporal punishment and youth violence remain even after taking potential confounders into account, e.g. per capita income, murder rates and parent education programmes to prevent child maltreatment

Per the BMJ report: "Proponents of corporal punishment argue that physical discipline is benign or even beneficial to the long-term health of the child. However, a persuasive body of evidence challenges this view. Several independent investigations have found that children’s exposure to corporal punishment relates to aggressive behaviours, mental health problems, academic problems and related cognitive deficits.

"Such outcomes have lifelong consequences for adult health and well-being. A meta-analysis of 75 studies found that childhood exposure to spanking, the most common form of corporal punishment, predicted 13 of 17 negative outcomes including aggression, antisocial behaviour, mental health problems, low self-esteem and physical abuse, and to antisocial behaviour and poor mental health in adulthood.

"A study of partner violence in six Asian and Pacific countries found that men’s experience of harsh physical parenting during their childhood related to violence against women in adulthood."

Various psychological models have been put forward to try and explain these results, including that smacked children learn that violence is a tool to solve problems or conflicts, that repeated exposure to corporal punishment creates "cognitive scripts" in a child's memory that makes violence more accessible later in life, or by reinforcing aggressive thoughts, emotions and actions towards others - with these theories "[helping] to explain the intergenerational cycle of physical violence from early childhood experiences to later violent behaviour."

The paper continues: "These findings add to a growing body of evidence on links between corporal punishment and adolescent health and safety. A public health response to the evidence involves regulatory reform and educational campaigns A growing number of countries have banned corporal punishment as an acceptable means of child discipline and this is an important step that should be encouraged, especially in countries that have seen an effective lobby against such prohibitive approaches. 

"Where there is insufficient public support for a full ban, [partial bans could amount to] an interim solution while also supporting positive and non-violent approaches to child discipline. However, partial bans can also send conflicting messages to parents and put health providers in a non-sensical position of having to educate parents about ways to hit their children safely. Furthermore, this study found no difference in fighting in males between countries with a partial ban and no ban."

Local picture

Results like this will make local advocates for a ban on corporal punishment redouble their efforts. They should also give everyone else some pause for thought.

Northern Ireland is currently in that middle group of countries with a ban on smacking in schools but not at the home, where physical punishment is allowed as long as it is deemed "reasonable chastisement" - which means, since a clarification a couple of decades ago, that it leaves no visible bruising, swelling, cuts or grazes.

Early last year, a survey carried out on behalf of the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) found that most adults here want corporal punishment to be banned - with 63% of the public in general supporting a change in the law, rising to 77% amongst 18-24 year olds.

The polling indicates a significant shift in attitudes compared with earlier this century. A similar survey published in 2003 found that only 30% of adults in NI wanted smacking outlawed.

Speaking with the 2017 survey was published, Children's Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma said: “Our survey shows how society’s views are continuing to change about the protection of children from physical punishment.

“Parents have the toughest and yet most rewarding job and there is no manual, but for too long now parents have been given mixed messages about how to effectively discipline their children. Updating our laws would give clarity to parents, who when at their most stressed, could be supported to deal with challenging situations.

“We now know a lot more about the damaging effects physical punishment has on children’s health and development, through adolescence and into adulthood. We did not have this information available to us even 5 years ago and we cannot now ignore this evidence...

“100 years ago, it was legal for men to hit their wife, pet and child. We have made positive moves on abuse and violence against adults in their homes but we have yet to move to make this type of assault on children illegal. The vulnerability of children requires more, not less protection from any form of assault…

“Government must protect children from assault by giving them more not less protection in the law - they deserve equal protection with adults. Government also needs to renew its efforts to provide parents in Northern Ireland with more support on 'positive parenting'."

The findings from McGill University's enormous study are compelling. Attitudes to smacking are changing and there appears to be growing momentum behind reform.

However, nothing should be taken for granted. Political directions of travel are never guaranteed to be one way.

Just last year, some schools in Texas reintroduced the paddle for children who misbehave.

Kids as young as four will get beaten with a wooden bat - but only if their parents opt in to the service.

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