Should smacking of children be banned?

According to the nation's leading pediatricians, smacking kids can be akin to child abuse and should be banned in Australia.

Dr Gervase Chaney, the head of The Royal Australasian College of Physicians' Pediatric & Child Health Division, said it was no longer OK for mums and dads to argue “that it never did us any harm” and  called on colleagues to stand up for children's rights. Professor Frank Oberklaid, a pediatrician from Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital, said Australia was lagging behind other countries in outlawing smacking which, in some cases, could lead to abuse and even death.

Dr Chaney wrote in a letter published in the Journal of Pediatrics and Child Health, “We cannot keep going on with the argument that it was OK for our generation as children (or that of our parents) and ‘it never did us any harm'. It is up to us as pediatricians to make the issue about children and their rights and advocate for their now and their future.” He added, “There has been good evidence that in countries where it has been banned there is a reduction in child abuse….Although many people have used physical discipline and it is still regarded in most of our society as an acceptable form of parenting, there is no delineation between what was acceptable as a smack and what is child abuse.”

Dr Chaney is pushing for the college to support a ban for the first time, as the body reviews its formal stance on smacking. He said that was likely to be approved and followed with a call on the government for legislative change.

Prof Oberklaid, director of the RCH's Centre for Community Child Health, said smacking sent the wrong message to children and could have significant long-term effects. “We would not consider for a moment that it is OK to smack other people, so why is it OK to smack children - our most vulnerable segment of the community?” he said, adding there were many instances of severe injuries and even deaths as a result of smacking.

The move comes after the Royal College of Pediatrics in the UK called for a smacking ban, saying “today's smack becomes tomorrow's punch”.

Child and adolescent psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg said he favored “reasonable chastisement of a child”. “You are not allowed to hit a child on the head or with an implement. The reality is the two most effective ways of disciplining children are noticing when they get it right and reinforcing that with praise, and time out…Most little children want to please so you try to shape that behavior. Belting kids is fundamentally ineffective, can cause revenge fantasies, tells children it's a problem-solving device and communicates that you have lost control,” he explained.

Professor of Psychology at the University of NSW, Mark Dadds, said most people were sensible “and know a light, occasional smack done by a loving parent is not damaging and can effectively deter a child from a problem behavior”. “Many people find the idea of a government banning parents from using smacks to be an over-reaction,” he said.

Former Australian of the Year and CEO of Child Wise Bernadette McMenamin has rejected calls for a ban on smacking and said it would leave parents thinking they lived in a nanny state. Ms McMenamin said smacking needed to be stopped – but through education, not the law. “I think it would make parents feel like the government is going too far, taking over the parental role,” she said. “Setting a law for no smacking, I know where the professor is coming from, but parents would find that far too interventionist and a nanny state.'”

“I do not believe that smacking is a useful disciplinary tool, it's about the parent taking out their frustration on a child…If you smack a child how can you tell what it a smack and what is a punch. It may start with an odd smack, but it can escalate,” she said. She has also noted that children could come to fear their parents in the event of receiving physical punishments. “It's a fear factor, do you really want to have your child be fearful of you? I have seen it in my own family, my brother was physically abused and it damaged him for life. That started out as a smack.”

A spokesperson for Premier Ted Baillieu said there were “no plans to change the law as it relates to the smacking of children”. Opposition Leader Daniel Andrews also said he did not support a change in the law. “A parent's first duty is to care and protect their child, and Victoria already has strong child protection laws in place. Parenting is hard and it's not made any easier by unenforceable and intrusive proposals like this.” The Presbyterian Church is also backing the right by parents to smack their child within existing common law parameters.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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