Violence against adults is assault, so why can we hit our kids?

Bad old days...disciplinary action such as a smack on a chid's bottom is not illegal in Australia, but is now viewed as ...
Bad old days...disciplinary action such as a smack on a chid's bottom is not illegal in Australia, but is now viewed as 'barbaric.' 

Children are treated as second-class citizens under Australian laws that allow parents to hit their children. The law not only treats children unfairly, it condones bullying and deprives parents of an incentive to consider less harmful, more effective disciplinary methods.

The common law defence of ''reasonable chastisement'' permits a parent to use force against his or her child, whereas equivalent use of force against an adult or an unrelated child is an assault. The excuse of reasonable chastisement remains a defence provided punishment is ''carried out with a reasonable means or instrument''. The law does not define ''reasonable''.

A survey of 720 adults conducted in 2006 by the Australian Childhood Foundation found that 45 per cent of respondents thought hitting so hard as to leave a mark was acceptable. One in 10 thought that using implements such as canes was acceptable, and a small number thought it acceptable to shake children or strike them across the head.

While the law does not excuse child abuse, it blurs the line between abuse and discipline and can make third parties reluctant to intervene when a child is being hurt. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to take ''all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures'' to protect children from ''all forms of physical or mental violence'' while in the care of parents or guardians. The doctrine of reasonable chastisement conflicts with Australia's obligations under the convention, and the UN has criticised Australia for this.

In a society concerned with schoolyard bullying and street violence, it seems extraordinary that some people consider the use of brute force against children not only acceptable but a parental right.

Banning smacking would create legal consistency by affording adults and children equal protection from assault.

Parents are understandably resistant to what they perceive as government intrusion into family life and parenting choices. But the issue is not about parenting styles. The question is whether it should be legal for an adult to use violence against a younger, smaller and weaker person in his or her care.

Possibly the strongest argument against smacking is that violence breeds violence. When parents use physical force to enforce their will, they teach their children that this is an appropriate way to solve problems. Witnessing violence is also traumatic for children.

Advocates of smacking often invoke tradition: "My father smacked me and it never did me any harm.'' Yes, without smacking, they would have become sociopaths, or perhaps they would have become better people. In the past, children played with lead toys, and worked in coalmines or as chimney sweeps. In my own lifetime, children rode bicycles without helmets and travelled in cars without seat belts. Sometimes traditional behaviours have to change.

Some say they smack because it is impossible to reason with a toddler or small child. If we follow this line of argument, carers should be permitted to smack adults with intellectual disabilities or dementia. Surely the fact that a child lacks reasoning skills ought to entitle them to more, not less protection.


If smacking were really effective, then it would be used on adults and teenagers. Rather than having been banned decades ago, corporal punishments such as floggings would still be an accepted part of our adult and juvenile correction systems.

Perversely, some suggest that a ''loving tap'' does not hurt a child. That is nonsense. If smacking does not hurt it is ineffective. The point of hitting is to assert dominance and control by inflicting pain. A smack that does not hurt can be laughed off or ignored by a child.

Recent research that found links between smacking and lower IQs in children presents yet another reason for parents to find alternatives. One explanation for the link is that parents who choose physical punishment miss an opportunity to talk with their child and so deny their child an opportunity to learn important communication skills. Moreover, the stress associated with regular physical punishment can inhibit a child's IQ.

Statistics on the effectiveness of anti-smacking laws must be approached with caution. The Swedish experience has been used to argue both for and against such laws. Thirty years ago, Sweden became the first country to ban smacking. It is sometimes claimed that it now has no deaths from child abuse. This is incorrect, although Sweden had, and continues to have, low rates of abuse-related deaths. Reported rates of child abuse have actually risen, but this is an expected consequence of broadening the definition of child abuse.

A ban on smacking will not, on its own, prevent people hurting and even killing children, any more than drink-driving laws eradicated drunk drivers. A ban on smacking would need to be accompanied by education programs about alternatives.

Banning smacking would create legal consistency by affording adults and children equal protection from assault. It would set a clear standard of acceptable discipline and encourage parents to consider alternative methods that help their child in the long term. It might even stop us teaching our children that ''might makes right''.

Kate Gaffney lectures in criminology at Monash University.