Intended for healthcare professionals

Opinion

Clarity in the law is needed to stop physical punishment of children

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.q943 (Published 25 April 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q943
  1. Andrew Rowland, officer for child protection
  1. Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, London WC1, UK

Removing the “reasonable punishment” defence and prohibiting corporal punishment of children can help to reduce family violence, says Andrew Rowland

In England and Northern Ireland, we have a key opportunity to give children the equal protection from assault that they need, deserve, and are entitled to as a matter of international children’s rights law. A new Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) report, “Equal protection from assault in England and Northern Ireland,” sets out the case for the legislative change to remove the “reasonable punishment” defence and to prohibit all physical punishment of children.1 Changing the law around physical punishment could help protect children against abuse and could protect and promote their health, wellbeing, and early development.

Wales, Scotland, and over 60 other states around the world have already taken the necessary steps to prohibit physical punishment (as far back as 1979 in Sweden’s case). Yet in England and Northern Ireland the laws around physical punishment as they stand are unjust and dangerously vague. They create a grey area in which some forms of physical punishment may be lawful and some are not.

As a paediatrician working in child protection services, I am regularly faced with situations where it is alleged that physical punishment has been used against a child. The vague nature of the laws, and the lack of statutory definition of “reasonable punishment,” makes it extremely challenging to talk to families about what the rules are around physical punishment of children, thus making it more difficult to speak in the best interests of their children. This lack of legislative clarity can also add complexity when trying to identify cases of child abuse; when trying to contribute to the multi-agency response to a concern raised by or about a child; and when trying, as professionals, to differentiate between a child who has been abused by someone in a momentary loss of control versus a child who is routinely physically punished, with or without physical marks being left.

No one can deny that our society’s views on punishment have changed over the past few decades, with 67% of voting adults agreeing that physical punishment of children is unacceptable.2 We have extensive evidence of the range of harms that physical punishment has on children, including the learnt belief that violence is accepted and even encouraged by society. For many children, this belief can lead to further violence and harm later in life.3 Research and history show us that violence is often cyclical in nature; it is up to us as adults to break that cycle for our children.

Physical punishment is associated with many negative health and developmental consequences for children, including increasing their risk of experiencing physical abuse and increasing their risk of experiencing mental health problems.4 Children who are physically punished are also at risk of significant harm, with those who have been physically punished by their parents potentially being up to seven times more likely to be seriously assaulted (for example, punched or kicked) than children who have not been physically punished.5 Therefore, preventing physical punishment is necessary for healthy child development, reducing the risk of further violence, and upholding children’s rights to protection.

There is a knock-on damage of physical punishment across children’s lives, with physical punishment and severe physical maltreatment being shown to be associated with emotional and behavioural difficulties in schoolchildren.6 Disciplining children through physical violence merely serves to educate them that such violence is accepted by society, this may encourage them to behave in this way as they grow older.

There must be no grey areas when it comes to safeguarding children. Changing the laws in England and Northern Ireland will give us absolute clarity and ensure there are no instances where it is acceptable or lawful to smack a child. The change would be simple: the removal of the reasonable punishment defence from legislation, and provision of education to the public on both the change and alternatives to physical punishment.

Ahead of a UK general election, this is the perfect opportunity for all political parties in England and Northern Ireland to make meaningful commitments on this important children’s rights issue and signal to young people and those with a responsibility to serve them that championing their wellbeing and safety will be a priority for any incoming government.

Moves to prevent family violence are progressive. The factors leading to the use of physical punishment of children need to be tackled, and parental support and education provided. It is not tenable for our societies to continue to, rightly, forbid child abuse while also, wrongly, permitting physical punishment of children. Reducing the number of cases of child abuse must begin with a clear message from society that physical punishment of children, whatever the circumstances, is unacceptable.7

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: AR is officer for child protection at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health; non-executive director at M’Lop Tapang (Cambodia); chair of the Board of Trustees of SicKids Charity (1164131); consultant paediatrician at Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust; lead employer medical director at Mersey and West Lancashire Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust; honorary professor (children’s rights, law, and advocacy) at the University of Salford; and member of the Advisory Council of The Churchill Fellowship (formerly the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust). He received a grant from the (then) Winston Churchill Memorial Trust in 2014, and in the report that followed this grant he made recommendations to prohibit physical punishment of children in the UK.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned, not externally peer reviewed.

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