When is it OK to hit your child?

Three out of four mothers admit to smacking their babies aged one year or less, according to a UK report. I am one of those mothers.

When Amelia was around 9 months old and teething she chomped down on my nipple at the end of a feed and gave me such a fright I instinctively reacted by smacking her on the arm. At the time I was horrified by my reaction. I still feel terrible about it. I never ever wanted to smack my children and here I was, hitting my innocent little baby who was just exploring her world.

Amelia didn’t seem too upset by my act of violence. She didn’t cry, just looked up at me, stunned. But I cried, and the memory of that awful act will probably stay with me forever. I don’t want to hit my children, ever.

Needless to say, most of our parents were hit as children, many of us were hit as children (my brother and I were,) and we can probably all recall a recent time when we witnessed a parent hitting their child in public.

So, are we allowed to hit our children? When is it justified? Does it work, and is there an alternative?

You are legally allowed to hit your child

According to Australian Common Law, you are allowed to hit your child so long as you do so to correct behaviour and only use reasonable force. In NSW, legislators tried to be a little more specific saying parents cannot use excessive physical punishment on any part of their child’s head or neck, or any other part of their body if the harm it causes lasts more than a short period.

But, if you live in New Zealand, Sweden, Norway, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Israel, Iceland, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, Belgium, Greece and Costa Rica it’s illegal.

In Norway, their laws are pretty clear: “The child must not be subjected to violence, or in any other way be treated so as to harm or endanger his or her mental or physical health (The Children Act, Number 7, Section 30, April 1981).”

When are you justified to hit your child?

Hitting your child as an instinctive reaction to protect them is different to hitting your child as a disciplinary measure. If your child is reaching for a boiling pot of water and your first reaction is to reach out and smack their hand away you can feel pretty justified in hitting your child.

Hitting your child on a regular basis, without explaining why they’ve been hit is never justified.

John Morrissey from the Australian Family Association told The Australian newspaper that his organisation “defends the right of a reasonable parent to smack their child as part of a range of strategies to discipline them.”

John continues that whilst recent years have seen a decline in parents smacking their children, our society is no more peaceful or gentle. But smacking is just one factor that can influence the peacefulness of society. It’s possible that reduced rates of smacking have positively contributed to the peacefulness of today’s society.

Sydney University Associate Professor, and developmental psychologist, Judy Cashmore told the Herald Sun there is no justification for hitting a child “You shouldn’t try to change people’s behaviour by hitting them. They are smaller and more vulnerable and you are teaching them to hit others.”

Professor Cashmore’s statement echos that of Bernadette Saunders, a senior research fellow at Child Abuse Prevention Research Australia, who told the Sydney Morning Herald that in Australia, children are the only people against whom violence is sanctioned and justified as discipline.

Children are vulnerable, surely they deserve special protection from the law, not exception.

Laws around parents smacking their children walk a fine line between nanny-state interference, and sanctioning child abuse.

Australia has twice been criticised by the United Nations for failing to meet its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child by continually allowing parents to smack their children. The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission reports that “appropriate discipline should be interpreted to include only non-violent disciplinary techniques and excludes discipline inflicting physical or mental harm.”

Bernadette Saunders says the fact children are the only group in society who can legally be assaulted is unacceptable. Similarly, Professor Cashmore has called for a revision of the laws, telling The Australian that making it illegal for parents to hit their children is not about criminalising parents but making a statement that “there are more effective and less harmful ways to discipline children.”

Does hitting your child make them a better person?

Just because it has been done for a long time, or is done by a lot of people, doesn’t mean hitting your child actually improves a child’s behaviour. The strongest single predictor of involvement in violence is having experienced violence.

The Australian Psychological Society’s report “Punishment and Behaviour Change” found that hitting your child is more likely to teach them how to evade detection, and increase defiant, noncompliant behaviour, than it is to inhibit unacceptable behaviour.

The same report highlights research showing that punitive parenting, especially the use of physical punishment, is linked to higher levels of child aggression, and a failure by children to develop self-control.

A UK study even found that the more a child is hit by their parents, the lower their IQ (more info on the study). Even small amounts of smacking made a difference. The study’s author, Professor Murray Straus, says that children who are hit by their parents experience a form of post-traumatic stress and can become constantly fearful that something bad is about to happen.

Other effects that have been linked to adults who were hit as children include:

  • Higher levels of aggression;
  • Criminal and anti-social behaviour;
  • Poorer adult health (e.g. depression and alcoholism); and
  • Abuse of one’s own spouse and child.

There are ways you can encourage acceptable behaviour without hitting your child

  • Explain the other person’s perspective and feelings:
    For example “When you threw the sand it really hurt Sally’s eyes”  and “you made Andrew feel really special when you asked him to join your game.”
  • Set clear limits (using positive language is best):
    For example, “please keep the sand in the sandpit” is preferrable to “don’t throw the sand out of the sandpit.”
  • Explain reasons for rules and requests:
    For example, “if you throw the sand out of the sandpit there’ll be none left to play with”
  • Reward appropriate behaviour; and
  • Elicit ideas and reactions from your child:
    For example, “look at Sally, she’s crying because you threw sand in her eyes, can you see she’s sad? What should you say to Sally?”

There is evidence that using these “inductive” strategies helps children learn to be more empathic, altruistic, generous, considerate, self-controlled, and engage in more positive peer interactions.

Children learn to see how their actions affect other people and are more likely to link their bad feelings, when reprimanded, to their own behaviour rather than to the punishment. This can allow children to want to be better people themselves, rather than forcing them to act like better people to avoid external punishment.

For younger children, these techniques are not so appropriate. It may be necessary to recognise the signs of tiredness, hunger, frustration, excitement or sadness and help them to find a new activity that is acceptable.

Another useful technique, where appropriate, lies in redirecting a child away from attention-seeking, destructive behaviour to a more productive activity.

There is a useful video and list of techniques on the Raising Children Network website. The video helps to show that children aren’t necessarily doing the wrong thing because they’re naughty but because they don’t yet know the boundaries and are simply exploring their world.

What do children think of being hit?

A report by Save the Children, used various techniques to allow 3, 322 children from South East Asia and the Pacific in 2005 to express their views on physical and emotional punishment. Here’s what those children had to say:

  • We are dependent on you to love and teach us. Please don’t confuse us and hurt us in the name of discipline;
  • Treat us with respect and courtesy, if you want us to respect and obey you;
  • Be good role models, so that we can learn from what you do as well as what you say;
  • Manage your anger, don’t use us as easy targets for venting your frustration about your problems;
  • Remember how much punishment hurt you as children, and try to find ways of dealing with your pain by teaching us it is wrong to hurt other people, whatever the reason;
  • Sometimes we have good ideas, because we know about the realities of our lives, please make it easy for us to tell you;
  • Discipline us softly, taking time to explain what you want us to do, and to listen to what we say.

Links and further reading

Herald Sun article “Call to make smacking children illegal

Sydney Morning Herald article “Smack the child, go to jail: parents pressured

News.com.au article “Aussie parents to defy UN smacking ban

The Australian article “Experts give smacking the wooden spoon

Leaflet on smacking from the UK Children’s Legal Centre

The Australian Psychological Society, “Banning corporal punishment, should psychologists lead the way?

The Australian Psychological Society’s report “Punishment and Behaviour Change

The law for correcting a child, Armstrong Legal

Corporal Punishment of Children Bibliography, Australian Institute of Family Studies


Save the Children

The Australian Family Association

Guiding children’s behaviour in positive ways” by the National Childcare Accreditation Council (NCAC)

Encouraging good behaviour” article and video, Raising Children Network

God told me to create paddles for spanking kids, YouTube video

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About parentcollective

I began blogging to keep track of all the advice I've been given about raising children and being a parent. I wanted not only to share what I know but for my friends to contribute their ideas and experiences about parenting so we can all learn from each other.
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6 Responses to When is it OK to hit your child?

  1. Rachel says:

    I wonder why none of the above address parent fatigue as a factor in smacking and for a smack on the hand for doing what they have been told not to with full explainations 3+ times…

    3 out of 4 seems like a low number to me.

    • Thanks for your comment. I never really considered investigating the reasons why parents smack their children. I guess there are lots of reasons parents have for hitting their children. I also guess that some parents could justify hitting their child in the situation you defined, and other parents could not.

      Certainly in my case the only time I’ve felt like hitting Amelia (apart from the first time described in the blog post) was when I was frustrated, but thankfully so far I’ve managed to keep my own emotions in check and not take them out on her.

      I thought 3 out of 4 was pretty high given that it was the number of mothers who admitted to smacking their baby (under 12 months old). I know Amelia was a pretty good baby but I can’t imagine a baby could test a parent’s patience the same way an older child could. If 3 in 4 hit their baby, does that mean the number is even higher for parents of older children?

  2. Mat. says:

    I can’t see any scenario where smacking a child under 1 could be appropriate, but completely ruling it out down the track, and leaving parents with only psychological tools for correcting behaviour has too be potentially dangerous as well. Smacking kids doesn’t, I think, guarantee that they will smack other kids or become in some way dysfunctional. Equally, using psychological means doesn’t ensure that a kid might not turn into a psychological bully. There are so many ways to damage children, physically and mentally and both can be done in an abusive way.

  3. Charlotte Newman says:

    Yes, in NZ it’s illegal. In fact they only recently changed the law on this. It was, and still is, a hugely hot topic and polarised the country into those for and those against ‘smacking’. The change in legislation was actually to stop abusive parents/guardians from getting off the hook by calling physical violence ‘reasonable force’. Sounds like this is what is still in place in Australia. Legally it seems there is a fine line between what is ‘reasonable force’ and what is abusive action.

    I was brought up to believe that there is always an alternative way of teaching your children how to behave and that violence/coporal punishment/physical correction is never a solution. I do feel though, like Ruth, that everyone has moments where they react in the heat of the situation and can hardly be blamed for it. Its not easy guiding a toddler into being a social creature!

    Anyway, I could write about this all day but my blessed toddler is about to put all the clean washing in the rubbish bin and my newborn has turned red in the face from trying to get my attention.

  4. Article from the University of Sydney on the attitude to child discipline prompted by the airing of “The Slap,” an ABC television series that staretd this week.

  5. Pingback: Is technology bad for kids? | theparentcollective

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