As of January 1, 2017, there are 52 states around the world where it is illegal to hit children. Australia is not one of these.
This means that in Australia, while it is illegal to hit another adult, it is perfectly legal for parents (and in some states, teachers) to hit a child.
Research from around the world consistently identifies that physical punishment has a negative impact on children’s development.
We now know that children who are physically punished are more likely to themselves be physically aggressive – after all what they are learning from their experiences is that it is perfectly acceptable to hurt another person if you are bigger than them, you think you are right and you want them to follow what you say.
Children who are physically punished are more likely to behave in an anti-social manner - they have learned from their experiences that it is acceptable (and even normal) for bigger and stronger people to enforce their will on others.
They have learnt that enforcing their will can be done with violence in order to achieve compliance and, as they grow bigger and stronger themselves, they will enforce their will on others smaller than themselves.
Smacking as a way to change behaviour
We also know that when children are physically punished for problem behaviour, punishment might stop the problem behaviour in that instant, but it does not serve to prevent children from repeating the behaviour. Rather, we know that physical punishment is likely to make a problem behaviour worse.
... the research evidence suggests that ... smacking in any context is harmful to children.
When children are physically punished for a problem behaviour, they are learning to change their behaviour around punishing adults but are not learning how else to behave.
Imagine Johnny is punished for hitting Freddie when Freddie took his toy off him. He gets smacked for hitting. He learns that (a) he can’t hit Freddie when an adult is around and (b) that hitting is okay if you are bigger.
He does NOT learn how else he could deal with Freddie taking his toys. Therefore the next time Freddie takes his toys he only knows to hit in response and his hit is more likely to be sneaky as he attempts to do so without an adult seeing.
In addition, there is research evidence that children who are physically punished are more likely to be depressed and anxious.
We can imagine Johnny worrying about how he will manage when Freddie takes his toys because he just doesn’t know how to respond except to hit and he knows that he cannot do that when there are adults around.
The more Freddie takes his toys, the more anxious and upset Johnny will feel, the more he will want to avoid playing with Freddie.
He will feel even more powerless and will be more likely to really thump Freddie when adults are not around to express his intense frustration.
A matter of trust
Some argue that smacking, in the context of a loving family, is not as harmful to children as smacking in other family contexts.
However, the research evidence suggests that this is a myth – that smacking in any context is harmful to children.
In a sense, physically hurting children is breaking the trust they have in us as adults, the trust that we will care for them, that we will keep them from harm and protect them.
It is time that we sought protection in law for our children; they deserve the right to grow up with the same kind of protections against violence that we as adults expect for ourselves.
As parents we can, and should, learn alternative behaviour management strategies that teach children how to behave appropriately without hurting them.