kids

It's perfectly legal to smack a child in Australia. But there's evidence it shouldn't be.

Last week, Welsh parliament passed legislation to make it illegal to smack children.

Advocates for the move called it long overdue and celebrated that children now have the same legal protections against assault as adults. Critics, however, argued the ban stepped into the private lives of families and that the government was making criminals out of loving parents.

When the law comes into effect in 2022, Wales will join dozens of countries including Finland, Scotland, Austria, Norway, South Africa and Brazil to outlaw smacking.

Watch: Do you smack your kids?

Video by Mamamia

But not Australia. It remains lawful here to smack a child, under certain conditions.

The philosophical debate, however, rages on… Is physical punishment actually effective discipline? What message does it send to the child? And what impact, if any, does it have on a person in the long term?

Let’s take a look.

What does Australian law say about smacking children?

Smacking is a kind of ‘corporal punishment’, which is a term used to describe physical force used for the purpose of control or correction.

Corporal punishment by a parent or carer is lawful in all Australian states and territories — and not considered child abuse — providing that it’s “reasonable”.

This is where things get murky, though. Only NSW law actually defines what ‘unreasonable’ corporal punishment means. (i.e. force applied “to any part of the head or neck of the child, or to any other part of the body of the child in such a way as to be likely to cause harm to the child that lasts for more than a short period”.)

In all other states and territories, it remains open to interpretation.

Is smacking an effective form of discipline?

Generally, no. Research does not support that physical punishment is effective in achieving lasting behavioural change, nor that it’s better than non-physical forms of discipline.

In fact, the Australian Institute of Family studies points to “high-quality” analysis by American researchers Elizabeth Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Kaylor in 2016, which found that children who are physically punished are just as “likely to defy their parents when they spank as comply with them”.

Dr Vivienne Lewis, a clinical psychologist at the University of Canberra, explained to Mamamia‘s daily news podcast, The Quicky, that one of the problems with smacking a child is that it doesn’t actually teach them what you want them to do.

“The child knows, obviously, you’re not happy with something,” she said. “But they don’t necessarily associate what they’re actually doing with that smacking. So, therefore, they don’t necessarily learn that’s not the behaviour that the parent wants.”

How does smacking impact a child in the short- and long term?

The Gershoff/Grogan-Kaylor research found that corporal punishment (not abuse) is associated with a number of negative outcomes for the child. Among them, antisocial behaviour, aggression, mental health problems and negative parent-child relationships.

ADVERTISEMENT

According to Dr Lewis, one of the obvious short-term consequences of smacking is what it teaches the child about using force.

“Quite often when children do get smacked, what they’re learning is [that] when you’re annoyed with someone or when you’re angry at somebody the [solution] is to lash out,” she said. “Sometimes you see that children will smack other children when they’re not happy with their behaviour, because they’ve learnt that that’s what Mum and Dad do when they don’t like things.”

Listen: The Quicky chats to experts about why it’s legal to hit children, but not adults. And whether that should change.

The long-term impacts of being smacked aren’t clear cut. Research has found an association between harsh physical punishment (smacking, shoving and pushing)  and depression, anxiety and increased vulnerability to substance abuse. Of course, it’s not possible to prove one directly causes the other —  there are a lot of other complicated factors that contribute to those kinds of outcomes.

Still, Patrick Lenta, associate professor in the Law Faculty at the University of Technology Sydney, is among those who believe we shouldn’t take the risk. He argues that smacking should be illegal: “It violates children’s rights. It poses a risk of psychological harm to them. It’s just bad for children,” he told Mamamia.

Assoc. Prof Lenta argues that parents should absolutely have a certain agency in how they raise (and discipline) their children, but that that comes with limitations: “they should not raise their children in a way that sets back their children’s basic interests — including interests in psychological health and integrity — and violates their children’s rights.”

So, what should parents do instead of smacking?

According to Dr Lewis, in order to enforce appropriate behaviour, parents are much better off verbally teaching a child what to do.

“Talking about the rules, talking about what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable,” she said.

“A lot of it comes down to early teaching of prosocial behaviour [behaviour that benefits others]. It’s trying to educate children along the way as to what are the rules and what do you want them to do. Because if you haven’t got that foundation, then it’s a lot harder to bring that in later on.”

Of course, there are times of high emotion when reasoning and conversation just aren’t going to cut it. What then?

“We all get frustrated, we all get fed up with what’s going on, particularly when you’ve had long stretches of looking after your children and you’re tired, and all the rest of it,” Dr Lewis said.

“The problem is when we leave [discipline] until we’re really frustrated, that’s often when we can lose our cool. So rather than a light tap on the hand or something like that, we’re much more likely to hit with force or hit with objects. And that would be considered abusive in a lot of ways.”

Dr Lewis advises parents and carers to, instead, temporarily leave the situation and then make it very clear to the child why they’re angry or annoyed.

Sure, but what if smacking is still the only thing that works?

If parents have exhausted all options — time outs, naughty corners, removing privileges, etc. — and nothing gets through, it could be time to get some professional advice, Dr Lewis said.

“It might be a good idea to actually seek some help,” she said, “whether that’s some help from a child psychologist or a behaviour management person or even a teacher at school, to learn some strategies for trying to communicate more effectively with your child, so that you’re not feeling like absolutely every strategy you use doesn’t work.”

00:00 / ???