Analysis: Sign up to ban on smacking

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The law still stops short of protecting children from being physically punished. Pat Gordon-Smith calls for a more concerted campaign.


'I don't get sad, only when my mum smacks me.' That's what one four-year-old said during a study into young children's views about smacking. The comment had such an impact on researcher Elinor Milne that she chose it as the title for her final report commissioned by the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance.

'The little girl who said this told me so many lovely things about her life and about her mum,' says Ms Milne. 'It wasn't always easy for the children to talk about this subject, but this child was a very bubbly character throughout our conversation, so I was surprised when she said this out of the blue - before I'd even mentioned the subject of smacking. It told me something about her experiences that I really hadn't expected.'

The research involved 45 children aged between two and four attending six early years settings. Using a specially written story about two (non-ethnic, non-gendered) alien creatures, Elinor Milne asked the children for ideas about love, caring and discipline that would help the adult alien 'Zig' look after four-year-old 'Zog'.

She asked, 'What are some good things that parents do?' (or, 'What would make Zog happy?') and then 'What are some things parents do that children don't like?' (or, 'What would make Zog sad?').

The children's responses to the first question showed how much their parents' love and warmth is felt through small daily pleasures and routines - simple games like 'tickle' and 'jumping all about', bedtime stories, teatime and being helped to go to the toilet. The children also felt happy when their parents showed consistent support and interest. 'If you colour in a picture,' said one, 'if you take to my mum, my mum says then, "Lovely, you make picture".'

The children's responses to what would make Zog sad were less consistent, and Elinor sometimes found it difficult to determine what they wanted to say. For example, was the comment 'If you don't give them food, they'll be sad', just a response to what would make Zog sad, or a suggested form of discipline?

Even so, violence in the form of smacking, hitting or kicking emerged as the most common thread of talk related to what makes children sad.

Once these two questions had been explored, the conversation focused on smacking, although Elinor used Zig's confusion to help the children keep some personal distance from it. 'Zig has heard of smacking,' she told the children, 'and wants to know what you think about it.'

Ms Milne found the most striking thing was the strength of the children's feeling. They told her that smacking hurts physically ('If you fall down, you bleed') and emotionally ('Smacking - when you get cry'), and they made a clear link between adults who hit and children who do the same. 'I know!' one boy exclaimed. 'If children smacks their mum, they smack them! If their dad smacks them, they smack the dad!'

Showing their understanding of alternatives, several children made suggestions for non-violent forms of discipline that Zig might use. One offered, 'She might say, you lie down in bed for all the time and you can't go to the park', while another said simply 'My mum says no.'


This research builds on existing work with older children, drawing especially on methods used with five- to seven-year-olds (Willow and Hyder 2003). The Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance was keen to know the views of two-, three- and four-olds because research consistently shows that children under five are more likely to be hit in the UK than their older peers (Ghate et al, 2003; Nobes & Smith 1997).

The Alliance is a coalition of more than 600 organisations and several thousand individuals seeking an end to legalised physical punishment of children by a repeal of section 58 of the Children Act 2004 - the defence of 'reasonable punishment'.

All the major early years organisations have signed up to the Alliance's aims, as have those across the full range of children's provision and protection, including many nurseries, children's centres and Sure Starts (see

Family Tree Children's Centre in Bracknell recently joined the Alliance. Centre head Belinda South says she does not agree 'with any kind of physical punishment or chastisement'. Helen McHale, head of Maidenhead Nursery School and Children's Centre, sees supporting the Alliance as an extension of the centre's ethos of positive behaviour.

The support among those who work with children and their families for the Alliance's aim to ban smacking is the coalition's greatest strength. With the evidence from Elinor Milne's research, the Alliance hopes to encourage even more early years settings and Sure Starts to sign up to its aims. The more supporters there are, the louder is the case made to Government.

For more information about the Alliance, go to, where Elinor Milne's research is available. If would like to discuss the Alliance's aims or are interested in signing up, please e-mail

Pat Gordon-Smith is a writer and a policy adviser for the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance



Antrobus, L (2009) Being a parent in the real world. London: Department for Children, Schools and Families

Balls, E (2008) Letter to Tessa Jowell MP in response to query from constituent supporters of the Children Are Unbeatable! Alliance: a8178632-1b73-dc54-552b-9e2808888c05.pdf

Ghate, D, Hazel, N, Creighton, S, Finch, S & Field, J (2003) The national study of parents, children and discipline in Britain: summary of key findings. London: Policy Research Bureau.

Ministry for Social Development (2009) Report to the Minister for Social Development and Employment pursuant to Section 7(2) of the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act. Ministry for Social Development, New Zealand.

Nobes, G & Smith, M (1997) 'Physical punishment of children in two-parent families'. Clinical Child Psychology and Psychiatry 2 (2), 271-81

Singleton, Sir R (2010) Physical punishment: improving consistency and protection. London: DCSF

Willow, C. & Hyder, T. (2001) Willow, C & Hyder, T (2001) It hurts you inside: young children talk about smacking. London: Children's Rights Alliance for England & Save the Children



Children have a lower level of protection from violence than adults in the UK. The law allows parents and some other adults to use a defence of 'reasonable punishment' if they are charged with hitting a child, so long as the assault leaves no lasting mark. This is classed as a 'common assault'. Any form of punishment which leaves a lasting mark on a child is actual bodily harm, and there is no legal defence for that.

But the reasonable punishment defence doesn't exist in any circumstances for hitting an adult. You're not allowed to argue that the only way to correct an adult's behaviour is by administering a mild, 'loving' smack.

The Government says that it protected children when, in 2004, it replaced the old defence of 'reasonable chastisement', in which parents could make an argument for any form of physical punishment being reasonable. It replaced it with the limited defence of 'reasonable punishment', saying says this works because the common assault charge for violence against a child is very restricted - you have to do much more damage to an adult before you can be charged with actual bodily harm.

But even the Government accepts that the test of there being no lasting mark leaves room in law for other forms of violence against children. Its own guidance to parents, a leaflet called Being a parent in the real world, makes this warning: 'It is ... important to be aware that even if a parent causes no actual injury to a child, some acts such as shaking a child, dragging a child by their hair, using a belt, cane, slipper or other implement may not be accepted by the courts as "reasonable punishment"' (Antrobus 2009). What a gruesome image of the treatment that is potentially legal in this country.

The Government genuinely does not condone smacking, and the same guidance urges parents to use positive forms of discipline instead. But it will not withdraw the reasonable punishment defence - and thereby ban smacking - because it wants to avoid 'criminalising decent parents who give their children a mild smack' (Balls 2008).

The same concern was expressed in other countries before they outlawed smacking, and experience shows that the problem can be managed successfully. Two years into a ban, the New Zealand Ministry for Social Development (2009) reported that it had 'not been able to find evidence to show that parents are being subject to unnecessary state intervention for occasionally lightly smacking their children'.

In the UK we already have a broad legal rule, the de minimis principle, which recognises that while some acts might be criminal under the letter of the law, they are so minor that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute. It's a tool we could employ in making a ban work.

A baby step towards a full ban may soon be taken if the next Government follows the intentions of the last to accept Sir Roger Singleton's (2010) recommendations to ban smacking by all adults who are not part of the family or 'household'. This ban would cover anyone working in part-time educational settings, Sunday schools and madrassas.

However, under these recommendations, home-based carers such as nannies, au pairs and babysitters may be judged on a case-by-case basis to be part of the household and might therefore be able to call on the 'reasonable punishment' defence. The same goes for step-parents, boyfriends/girlfriends, grandparents and other informal carers.

In effect, the way is still left open for a significant number of people to legally smack children - hit them, physically intimidate them or, indeed, 'drag them by the hair' - and still remain within the law. In the end, while the Government might not condone smacking, it cannot show equal respect for children's right to protection against violence so long as the reasonable punishment defence remains.

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