Is It Illegal To Smack Children In The UK?

Smacking may make parenting harder in the long run, not easier

16/08/2017 10:01 BST | Updated 23/11/2017 11:49 GMT
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What’s the current law on smacking children in the UK?

It is legal for a parent or carer to smack their own child in the England, Wales and Northern Ireland when it amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’, as laid down in section 58 of the Children Act 2004

But whether a smack can be judged reasonable punishment will depend on the age of the child and the force involved in smacking. Parents have the right to choose to discipline their children with a smack, but there is a fine line between what some parents would regard as ‘reasonable’ (and therefore a defence in law) and assault, which is a criminal offence.

Hitting a child in a way which causes wounding, actual bodily harm, grievous bodily harm or child cruelty are all illegal. A parent could be charged with common assault if a child is left with any of these injuries:

  • Scratches

  • Abrasions

  • Minor bruising

  • Swellings

  • Reddening of the skin

  • Superficial cuts

  • A black eye

For even more serious injuries - cuts, multiple bruising, fractures, broken bones, broken teeth or loss of consciousness - a parent could be charged with actual bodily harm.

Smacking children is set to be banned in Scotland, the Scottish government confirmed on Thursday 19 October. The country will be the first part of the UK to make the physical punishment of children illegal.

Wales is set to be the next country to make smacking illegal. On Universal Children’s Day [20 November] the Welsh Minister for Children, Huw Irranca-Davies, said: “It can no longer be acceptable in a modern and progressive society for children to be physically punished. 

“It is right that as a Government, we take action to protect children and support parents to use positive and effective alternatives to physical punishment.”

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What about teachers and caregivers?

It is against the law for teachers, nursery workers and child care workers to smack children - and definitely no rulers or canes! However, they are allowed to use ‘reasonable force’ to restrain a child. 

And, just to complicate the legal/illegal smacking grey areas, it is legal for parents employing nannies, au pairs and childminders privately to give them permission to smack the children in their care.

Is smacking illegal in other countries?

Globally, 52 countries have made the physical punishment of children illegal. Sweden was the first in 1979 and France the most recent country with its ban in 2017. The Republic of Ireland banned smacking in 2015.

In Europe, only four countries - Italy, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and the UK - continue to allow the ‘reasonable punishment’ of children.  

In 2015 the UN issued a public rebuke to the UK nations for not complying with its Convention on the Rights of the Child and stated that corporal punishment should not be allowed in “all settings including the home” and that the UK should “encourage non-violent forms of discipline instead”.

So why isn’t smacking banned in the UK?

It’s a controversial subject. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on a ban and the Welsh Government plans to do the same in the next 12 months. Meanwhile the debate rolls on...  

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What are the arguments for and against smacking?

Those who support the right to smack their own children say it works as a way of chastising children and preventing repeated bad behaviour, that it never did them any harm as children and that the ‘nanny state’ should not intervene in what happens within their homes or criminalise parents.  

Those who oppose smacking say that it is an outdated discipline method that has no place in a civilised society. They say that smacking children simply does not work and is an abuse of vulnerable children by adults. They point out the absurdity of criminalising smoking in a car with a child, but allowing smacking to continue.

An NSPCC spokesperson told HuffPost UK: “Parents are often under pressure but the NSPCC believes that smacking is not the best way to resolve problems or improve behaviour.

“Hitting children only teaches them to use violence. If you were trying to convince an adult not to do something you wouldn’t hit them, so why would you do that to a child?”

Instead the NSPCC and many child experts promote positive parenting, using positive ways to bring up children with praise, repetition, clear boundaries and expectations and explanation. The children’s charity says: “Smacking can hurt children’s feelings - making them resentful and angry,and damaging the relationship between parent and child. This makes parenting and discipline harder in the long run, not easier. Smacking can get out of control.

“This also comes back to being a role model. If you smack your child, they may think this is acceptable behaviour and treat other people in the same way. Children may avoid being smacked by lying or hiding how they feel. And they may become withdrawn – not developing independence.

“When you give out love, you get it back. When you give out harsh punishment – screaming, yelling or hitting – this means you are eventually likely to get anger and resentment back.” 

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Parents’ suggestions of alternative ways to improve children’s behaviour, without resorting to smacks

“Children care what parents think. They want to make us happy and proud. I praise my kids when they act responsibly and unselfishly and are a pleasure to be around. I’ve never needed to smack. A stern word, a disapproving frown can speak volumes when I’m disappointed or expected better.” Dominique

“Smacking doesn’t work. It’s a loss of control. The only time I tried to smack my daughter she was about two - and she smacked me straight back, both of us shouting and then crying. We used the naughty step idea as a time out to think about being nicer and calm things down.” Siobhan

“Clear boundaries and expectations, praise them when they’re good, tell them off with they’re naughty - and hugs. It’s not rocket science.” Hugh

“My dad smacked me with a slipper. I hated the humiliation of being 12, 13 and still being smacked. I’ve never raised a hand to my five children. I wanted to earn their love and respect. I celebrate the good behaviour and ignore the bad. That seems to work.” Jack

“My job as a parent is to bring my child up to be a kind member of our civilised society. We have to explain right from wrong; I don’t show her right by doing wrong and smacking her. I want to be a better role model than that. There are times when I feel overwhelmed but then I take myself away for a few minutes.” Laura