healthHealth and Medicine

Smacking Children As A Form Of Punishment Should Be Illegal, Say UK Experts


Robin Andrews

Science & Policy Writer

If it doesn't work, and the literature increasingly finds that it causes long-term psychological harm, then don't do it. fasphotographic/Shutterstock

Whether it’s called spanking or smacking, the act of punishing children in this manner is increasingly being viewed by researchers as a bad, or at least unwise, move. In line with this reasoning, the UK Association of Educational Psychologists (AEP) has recently tabled a motion to the ongoing Trade Union Congress Conference in Manchester to make this form of retribution illegal.

Per BBC News, they emphasize that smacking is an ineffective form of behavioral control because no solid study shows an improvement in behavior post-punishment. They also stress that it’s damaging to the minds of young adults and children.


John Drewicz, an AEP national executive committee member, will tell the conference that “smacking is harmful to a child's mental health. It models aggressive behavior and it says to them that it is okay to use violence.” The largest teaching union in the UK, the National Education Union, is also backing the motion.

Several parts of the UK, like Wales and Scotland, are in the process of enacting legislative measures that will make smacking children either harder to engage in legally or entirely outlawed. In dozens of other countries, from Brazil to Iceland, Spain to Sweden, it’s already illegal.

Evidence has accumulated over the past few decades that punishing children through the use of a degree of physical violence is psychologically harmful.

This study, for example, suggests that they’re more likely to have developmental delays, whereas this one links it to violent future relationships. Another links harsh corporal punishment in young adults to a reduced amount of the brain’s gray matter in later life.


Associations with low self-esteem, heightened aggression, anti-social behaviors, and reduced cognitive aptitudes are often seen among the data.

True, some individual papers have minor design or interpretational issues, and linking future psychological or even neurological effects to spanking alone is difficult; other variables could of course come into play here.

You have a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue of attribution sometimes. As Scientific American puts it: are kids being spanked for acting out, or are they acting out because they’re spanked?

Spanking, smacking, and corporal punishment are also defined differently depending on where in the world you are. Specific act terminology isn’t always synonymous across nations, which makes erecting legal barriers somewhat tricky. When does smacking become child abuse? Such quandaries also make studying the topic more challenging, as clearly defined terms are needed to isolate individual effects.


Nevertheless, as Professor Jeff Temple, the director of Behavioral Health and Research at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told IFLScience recently, the literature shows that “spanking is linked to negative outcomes – and moreover, we know that spanking does not work.” With that in mind, it makes sense to err on the side of caution and refrain from doing it.

As ever, many comment warriors will respond to this move in the same way they always do. They’ll note that they were spanked as a child, which was perceived to be an important disciplinary enforcement move. They will also claim they turned out fine, which is why they do the same to their children.

It shouldn’t need to be said that this is anecdotal evidence, which is most certainly not how good scientific inquiry works. If you happen to be one of these bellicose supporters of spanking or smacking kids, then you are part of the problem.

The situation in the UK at present is that such actions are not permitted in schools, but so-called reasonable smacking is allowed by parents. Ideally, the British government will act on the latest calls to rid the country of the practice completely.


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