Majority believe it's unacceptable to physically punish a child

We’re calling for equal protection in England as poll shows over two-thirds of adults believe it’s unacceptable to physically punish children.

  • Our latest research, a YouGov poll of almost 3,000 over 18s, shows 68% think physically disciplining a child, for example by smacking, isn't acceptable.
  • On March 21, the day the “reasonable chastisement” defence is abolished in Wales, almost two-thirds (64%) said it’s time to change the law in England and give children the same protection against assault as adults.
  • The abolition of reasonable chastisement in Wales comes 16 months after the law was changed in Scotland.

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The abolition of physical punishment in Wales

The Welsh Parliament passed the Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) Wales Act in 2020, and the change in the law comes into force today.

It means Wales has now joined Scotland and more than 60 other countries around the world in no longer tolerating any physical violence against children, in the same way they don’t for adults.

We’re now calling on the government to follow suit in England and end the legal exception that currently allows parents and carers to use a defence of “reasonable punishment” after striking a child.

Sir Peter Wanless, NSPCC CEO, said:

“Today is a landmark moment for children in Wales. They’re some of the most vulnerable members of our society and deserve more, not less, protection from violence than adults. 

The NSPCC has long campaigned to remove this outdated defence and we’re pleased that children in Wales, Scotland and Jersey now have equal protection from assault.

Public attitudes to physical punishment are changing and the law needs to follow suit. Westminster now needs to follow its neighbours and tackle this legal anomaly.”

Our findings show public support for legal reform in England

  • Our survey shows 64% are in favour of a legal amendment to end the use of physical punishment against a child, with 36% against.
  • The poll also revealed a lack of clarity across England about what parents and carers currently can and cannot do when disciplining their children.
  • More than half (58%) thought it was illegal to physically punish a child, 22% didn't know and only 20% knew that it’s still legal.

Lynn Perry, Barnardo’s CEO, said:

“Barnardo’s frontline workers say that eliminating physical punishment brings significant benefits to families and helps to create a safe and nurturing environment for children. The NSPCC’s new polling confirms that a majority of the public recognise this too.

For all these reasons we support the call to make physical punishment of children illegal across the UK to ensure they have the same protection as those in Scotland and Wales.”

Young people are contacting Childline for help

Last year there were more than 500 counselling sessions delivered by Childline to young people about physical punishment.

Some said they’d been physically punished for a while, but it had become more severe as they got older. This left them feeling afraid of their parents or carers, and worried for their safety.

A girl*, 16, who contacted Childline, said:

“When I was younger and I misbehaved, my mum gave me a warning and put me on the naughty step.

Then when I got to around 5-12 years old, it was a tap or a little smack.

But now it can be a proper smack or there was one occasion where she pulled my hair and I fell to the floor, and she continuously hit me.

I don’t want to get mum in trouble, but I can’t carry on being afraid of her.”

Research shows physical punishment is ineffective and harmful

University College London (UCL) and an international team of experts recently analysed 20 years of research1 and found physical punishment is:

  • Ineffective, harmful and has no benefits for children and their families.
  • Doesn’t improve children's behaviour and instead increases behavioural difficulties, such as aggression and anti-social behaviour.
  • Puts children at increased risk of being subjected to more severe levels of violence.

Dr Anja Heilmann, UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, said:

“Having reviewed 20 years of research on physical punishment, we can unequivocally say that the evidence is clear: physical punishment is harmful to children’s development and wellbeing.

“There’s no evidence that it has any positive outcomes whatsoever. We also know that in countries where it’s no longer legal, support for physical punishment has declined dramatically, and its use is much less common.

“The legislative change coming into force in Wales today sends a clear signal that physically hurting children is never acceptable. Children in England deserve the same - we hope that the law reforms in Scotland and Wales will be a catalyst for change happening there too.”

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*This is a true story but names have been changed to protect identities and any photographs are posed by models.