Physical Punishment 

Written by Lucy Reynolds


I used to think the sort of paediatricians who should be campaigning about the laws on the physical punishment of children were the ones with an interest in child protection. The more I’ve read, and the more I’ve thought about the issue, I’ve been moved to conclude that the paediatricians who should have the most to say on the issue are actually those with an interest in child development, and those with an interest in public health. In fact, me. And the more I read, and the more I think, the more ashamed I am that we in the UK have not achieved what 47 states around the world (most recently Ireland in November 2015) have done, and introduced legislation to completely ban physical violence against children.

“Equally Protected? A Review of the Evidence on the physical punishment of children” ( is a most welcome tool for us to use in campaigning for our laws to be brought in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I recommend reading the whole report, but to help anyone with only 11 minutes to spare, I was given the opportunity to record a short interview summarizing the findings and implications, which you can listen to here:

I’m struck when I discuss the subject with friends and colleagues by how many don’t realise that UK laws do still permit parents to hit their children. In Scotland the defense is called “justifiable assault”, whilst in the rest of the UK it’s “reasonable punishment”. If people are already under the impression that it is already illegal, then do we need to bother to change those laws? The overwhelming evidence is that we do.

Research suggests that around half of UK children are at some point being hit by their main caregiver. That’s the sort of prevalence that those of us with a public health interest can really get our teeth into. Speaking of teeth…. as a developmental paediatrician, when discussing a preschool child who has been hitting, nipping or biting, I’m often told by a parent “my mum says I should bite him back, so he knows what it feels like”. So repeatedly, I’m explaining some basics of child development:

  • that an infant or young toddler is unable to put themselves in the position of someone else and understand the impact of their actions, and
  • that they copy the behaviour that is modeled to them.

This is elegantly illustrated by Bandura’s classic “Bobo doll” experiment, as seen in this clip from the TV programme “Child of Our Time” – watch from 1 minute 50 seconds:  

No one benefits from the hitting of children. Those (and they still exist – I heard one on a radio phone-in earlier this year) who fear that without the use of physical punishment our children are destined for delinquency are misguided. The evidence clearly points in the other direction. Experience of physical punishment as a child is a risk factor for developing anti-social behaviour.  Physical punishment does not ‘work’ - it is more likely to contribute to the development or consolidation of behavioural problems - and it risks causing physical, emotional and psychological damage. Were it a medication, its license would promptly be withdrawn. We don’t have a yellow-card system for reporting its dangers, but I would argue that we as paediatricians, mental health and public health professionals should still be at the forefront of the work to consign it to history. I’ve been inspired by Staffan Janson, Professor of Social Paediatrics at the universities of Karlstad and Orebro. Not satisfied simply with protecting Swedish children from violence, he has spoken at numerous international conferences and political meetings, such that others may learn from the Swedish experience ( ).

What can we do? The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has a position statement on Corporal Punishment, created in 2009. ( ). One of its recommendations is that “The College encourages its members to speak to MPs and other key decision makers, to ensure that they are appraised of the adverse health effects of corporal punishment. “ Both the RCPCH and the Faculty of Public Health are supporters of the Children Are Unbeatable Alliance, campaigning for legislative change ( ). So too are the British Psychological Society Faculty for Children and Young People, and the Royal College of Psychiatrists Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Faculty.

What have YOU done? Have you written to your MP, your MSPs, or members of the Welsh or Northern Ireland Assemblies? Don’t give them the excuse of not knowing the evidence. This latest research review, and the passing of the law in Ireland, are great ‘hooks’ not only for contacting our elected representatives, but also for seeking media coverage, and for spreading the word round social and professional networks. As well as sending the interview link to my MSPs, I’ve shared it on Facebook and via email, asking friends and colleagues to consider contacting their politicians. I’ll be sharing this blog round my professional networks. I’ve joined Children are Unbeatable in Scotland, and let them know that I’m happy to be contacted for interviews or discussions when a paediatrician’s view is appropriate. I’ve arranged to speak to a freelance journalist this month, and I’ll speak at a local community event on parenting in the New Year. I’ve signed up for RCPCH Parliamentary Panel training in February. If you too are in Scotland, come on – we led the UK in introducing a smoking ban, and we’re doing our best with minimum pricing of alcohol, surely we can do this? And if you’re in Wales, Northern Ireland or England – can you beat us to it? The race is on!

Lucy Reynolds

Consultant Paediatrician in Community Child Health, NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde

BACAPH executive committee member

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