Skip to content

Are we ready to ban smacking?

A person with long dark hair and a patterned dress sits on a wooden bench outdoors, with trees and buildings in the background.
University of Southern Queensland researcher Dr Carolina Gonzalez says more needs to be done to change parents’ attitudes about corporal punishment of children.

The push for a complete ban on smacking children has never been stronger.

However, a legislative change in Australia might be further away than previously thought if new research revealing parents’ acceptance of corporal punishment in different countries around the world is any indication.

University of Southern Queensland’s (UniSQ) Dr Carolina Gonzalez led the study that examined the differences between corporal punishment bans and parenting beliefs, practices, and behaviours in eight high-income countries.

Australian parents reported the highest level of acceptability of corporal punishment of children when compared to parents from other countries, including Canada and the UK.

Dr Gonzalez said the findings, which were published in Australian Journal of Social Issues today (May 29), underlined just how far there was to go to change Australians attitudes about corporal punishment of children.

“The concern behind this result is that research shows parents who think corporal punishment is an effective and acceptable discipline strategy are significantly more likely to use it,” Dr Gonzalez said.

“As parents, we don’t think it’s okay for our children to be hit by a peer or a stranger, so why should causing pain to your child feel fine when you are the parent?”

To measure parents’ attitudes toward corporal punishment and other coercive strategies, Dr Gonzalez and her co-investigators conducted a secondary analysis of data from the International Parenting Survey and compared countries using a statistical technique to control for parents' age, gender, and educational level.

The survey included more than 6700 parents of children aged 2-12 from eight countries, including Germany and Spain, where corporal punishment is prohibited in all settings.

While it’s not clear why Australian parents are more accepting of corporal punishment, Dr Gonzalez said it could be related to cultural conceptions.

“Australia is an individualistic country, and there may be an emphasis on parents managing their children’s behaviour on their terms rather than engaging in public discussion about this being a public concern,” she said.

Corporal punishment is any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause pain but not injury to a child for the purposes of discipline. This includes smacking, spanking, pinching, and hitting with a hand or an implement like a wooden spoon or belt.

Despite virtually every country committing to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which argues that no violence against children is acceptable, only about a third of countries worldwide have prohibited corporal punishment in all settings.

In Australia, corporal punishment is only banned in public education, health, and justice settings, such as schools, daycares, sporting contexts, and residential services. That’s despite a significant amount of research that shows it’s an ineffective method to discipline children and is linked to poor outcomes for children, including mental health problems, antisocial behaviour and violence in childhood and across life.

Dr Gonzalez, a mother of two and a clinical psychologist who has been conducting research on parenting for the last seven years, said that while banning corporal punishment would be beneficial and may change attitudes, eradicating corporal punishment in Australia would need to go beyond legislation.

“In our study, parents from Germany and Spain, where corporal punishment has been totally banned, did not consistently show less acceptance and use of corporal punishment and other coercive strategies when compared to parents from other countries. Therefore, banning it should only be the first step in line with other measures at the population level,” she said.

“Pointing fingers or judging parents who spank their children is not the best way to go about it; we need to educate other parents like me on the harmful consequences of corporal punishment and how it can be replaced with more positive strategies.

“Our children deserve to grow up in homes free of violence.

“Broad public campaigns, initiatives to break historical and cultural patterns and better systems for supporting parents will help bring a stop to the corporal punishment of children.”

The study ‘Acceptability of Corporal Punishment and Use of Different Parenting Practices Across High-Income Countries’ was authored by Dr Carolina Gonzalez, A/Prof Alina Morawska (The University of Queensland), Prof Daryl J. Higgins (Australian Catholic University) and Dr Divna Haslam (Queensland University of Technology) who are members of the Parenting and Family Research Alliance.