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  • Writer's pictureAnita Mehay

Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies


Many of us on the Fathers Together study are involved with many other projects and research - one which is worth us mentioning here.


We had been interested in the topic of physical punishment - which refers to when a parent or carer smacks their own child as 'reasonable punishment'. The idea of reasonable punishment is challenging and highly subjective, but some laws would suggest that smacking which does not 'leave a mark' would be seen as reasonable punishment.


However, we know that many people - parents, policy-makers, practitioners alike - have different views of whether smacking is an effective form of discipline and if it is even ever appropriate. We therefore wanted to summarise the past two decades of research on physical punishment to help law makers discuss the issues based on the evidence. We only including studies which focused on smacking (not severe assaults), looked at outcomes on children over time, and studies which used an approach where we can clearly establish the effect of physical punishment (i.e. make a causal link).


We identified over 2,000 papers and systematically screened them to only include the most high quality studies - 69 in total. We analysed and synthesised the findings from these studies and found definitive evidence that physical punishment is ineffective and harmful, and has no benefits for children and their families. We actually saw a clear link between physical punishment and behavioural problems such as aggression and antisocial behaviour. Even more worrying are findings that children who are the recipients of physical punishment are at increased risk of being subjected to more severe levels of violence.


This is important as we know from speaking to many parents that some might use physical punishment with their children because they think doing so will lead to better behaviour. But our research found clear and compelling evidence that physical punishment does not improve children’s behaviour and instead makes it worse.


In both Scotland and more recently Wales, there is now a legal ban on smacking children. But in other parts of the UK and around the world, it is still legal. Our conclusion based on this evidence is that all countries should heed the UN’s call to uphold children’s human rights and promote their wellbeing by prohibiting physical punishment in all forms and all settings.



The full academic study was published in the Lancet - see: https://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140-6736(21)00582-1.pdf






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