Law must ‘put a stop to smacking children’

04-May-2017

Felicity Gerry QC … “Bring an end to reasonable chastisement”.

Felicity Gerry QC … “Bring an end to reasonable chastisement”.


A Charles Darwin University lecturer says societal attitudes and the law relating to the physical punishment of children are in urgent need of change.

Senior Lecturer in Law Felicity Gerry QC said that slapping, spanking, smacking and hitting a child with a wooden paddle were all forms of violence that would amount to assault if applied to an adult.

“While Australian law prohibits the striking of a human being, it provides a parent or guardian the right of ‘reasonable chastisement’, which allows children in the home to be hit,” Ms Gerry said.

“It is high time to end the defence of reasonable chastisement and it needs to happen in the UK, the USA as well as in Australia.

“The removal of this defence would effectively remove the hidden nature of physical punishment of children and then allow for health and policy responses along with clear legal guidance on when to prosecute or not.”

Ms Gerry and co-authors Dr Andrew Rowland (UK) and Ms Marcia Stanton (US) describe child protection law as a slowly moving landscape in an article entitled “Physical Punishment of Children”, published in the current edition of the International Journal of Child Rights.

“Some 49 states had reformed their laws to prohibit all corporal punishment of children in all settings, including the home. It is not acceptable for the UK, the USA and Australia to remain missing from the list.

“Physical punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing the child to experience bodily pain or discomfort so as to correct or punish a child’s behaviour.

“While deeply embedded in cultural views, government law, social policy and in some religious texts, the continued legality of physical punishment of children in the UK, USA and Australia is a serious violation of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.”

Ms Gerry said that while corporal punishment may have a high rate of immediate behaviour modification, research shows that it is ineffective over time.

“It does not teach children why their behaviour was wrong or what they should do instead.

The Triple P – Positive Parenting Program was an example of an evidence-based, cost-effective system of parenting support that provides simple strategies to manage children’s behaviour.

“Changing the law, raising awareness, changing attitudes and behaviour, and developing a public health approach are all ways that the community could work together to prevent child abuse,” she said.

“Either society must come to that conclusion itself and demand change, or if it cannot do this, the law-makers in that society must make the brave decision to change the untenable laws that permit child abuse in the form of physical punishment.”

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