4 July 2018 - Article, News

Do children modify their behaviour in response to spanking or are they reacting to abuse?


Dr Jacqueline Harness PhD MBA MCouns


Australia leads the world in behavioural management encouraging the replacement of harsh positive punishment with positive reinforcement methods through community engagement such as the Triple P Positive Parenting Program (Sanders, 2008).  Yet, ten years on from the release of that program, an Australian child remains the only citizen that can be legally hit (Rowland, Gerry & Stanton, 2017).   How can this be when decades of scientific evidence consistently demonstrate long lasting negative outcomes of even “mild corporal punishment” such as spanking (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2012)?  This article aims to delve into the dichotomy by unravelling the societal norms that may mask the evidence and lessen its impact on policy makers.

Paradoxically, the answer to the plight on human rights of Australian children may lie in Africa or Asia.  A recent study in Tanzania investigated the effect of harsh discipline (physical and psychological force to manage behaviour) on internalized emotional problems and cognitive functioning (Hecker et al., 2016).  The results were consistent across cultures (Gershoff et al., 2012) and confirmed many other studies reporting the detrimental effects of corporal punishment on children’s mental health that can persist into adulthood (Afifi et al., 2006).  However, by focussing on internalised problems, i.e. emotional problems directed at the self rather than being acted out, Hecker et al (2016) effectively revealed the emotional toll of forced compliance; lowered self-esteem, and its subsequent detrimental effect on academic performance.   What this tells Australian parents and policy makers is that spanking and yelling at children may make them comply, however the resultant emotional difficulties they endure can affect their ability to concentrate at school, restrict later employment opportunities and place a burden on the mental health system; strikingly similar to the long term societal effects of childhood abuse and neglect (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2016).

It is of no surprise that parents and school teachers miss the detrimental effects of harsh punishment, especially when emotional problems are internalised rather than acted out.  Children who internalise are labelled “good’ rather than “problem child”.  On the face of it, harsh positive punishment works, and gives weight to the authoritarian parenting totalitarian war cry of “spare the rod, spoil the child” (Baumrind, 1967) that still endures to some extent in modern day Australia.  Yet in Pakistan, where there is a cultural norm of authoritarian parenting and spanking, a recent study further demonstrated the negative impact on academic performance (Khalida, & Ahmed, 2017).  Together, these findings underpin the positive effects on children’s grades of a softer, authoritative positive parenting approach, whereby discipline does not involve spanking or yelling (Spera, 2005).

The legislative stance of “reasonable chastisement” delineates spanking from physical abuse, even though the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recommended this defence clause be removed by all member states (Rowland et al., 2017).  The definition of ‘reasonable’ may also add to the uncertainty in the research.  Some authors describe “non-abusive corporal punishment” (Font & Cage, 2018) as though children experience being hit by an angry adult in different ways.  Measurements of punishment also differ from caregiver reports, who may report spanking but would be disinclined to admit illegal abuse (Jones et al., 1998), to equally subjective, yet possibly more relevant, child reports who may underreport due to fear of their caregivers finding out.

In a meta-analytic longitudinal review, Ferguson (2013) concluded that the impact of spanking and corporal punishment on both externalised and internalised problems was “statistically significant, yet trivial” and recommended that psychologists “take a more nuanced approach with the public”.   Corporal punishment was operationalised as “pushing, shoving, and striking in the face”.  Such ambiguity of where to draw the line between punishment and abuse as well as softening of language of brutality to behaviour management, may inadvertently put children at further risk of emotional damage.  The Human Rights Watch (2008) definition of physical punishment as “slapping, spanking or smacking and hitting with a hard object such as a wooden paddle” would ensue in criminal charges if delivered in the workplace in Australia.  Yet the children of those working parents are not afforded the same protection.  It is curious then that psychological researchers choose to delineate between two definitions of corporal punishment and physical abuse, even though they claim to be on ‘team child’.  Is the research terminology itself buying into the societal norm that smacking is not abuse and somehow justifying this action as an appropriate way to manage others?

Given the Australian societal norm of spanking as reasonable, as well as the illegality of physical abuse, there may possibly be biases and ambiguity in caregiver and child reports.  One way to circumvent this is to obtain more details of the intention behind the punishment, and gain an objective assessment of the state of mind of the caregiver. Such an investigation would provide more detailed information of whether the punishment was given to relieve internalised frustration of the adult, hence begin to unravel the abusive nature of a ‘mild smack’.  The perceptions and biases of politicians towards smacking may explain the dichotomy between science and the law.  Hence further research in Parliament House, rather than State Primary Schools, could shed light as to why Australia lags behind the global trend to abolish all corporal punishment, including the home (United Nations, 1989).

This article has revealed the overwhelming evidence that smacking children is not only harmful to their emotional health and academic success, but also impacts their emotional well-being as adults.  From a human rights perspective, in 2018 it is still legal to hit an Australian provided they are under 18.  Future research into the mind set of adults smacking children may reveal the underlying abusive drive and go some way to challenging the societal norm that smacking is justifiable.  From a legislative perspective, research into the biases and perceptions of Australian Federal politicians will begin to bridge the gap between scientific evidence and the law that ought to protect the most vulnerable sector of society.



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American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2012). Child Maltreatment and Violence Committee, Policy Statement on Corporal Punishment. Washington, DC: American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. https://www.aacap.org/aacap/Policy_Statements/2012/Policy_Statement_on_Corporal_Punishment.aspx.

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United Nations. (1989). Convention on the Rights of the Child, London:UNICEF.


© 2018 Jacqueline Harness