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Attitudes to physical punishment of children are changing
  1. Amanda J D'Souza1,
  2. Marie Russell2,
  3. Beth Wood3,
  4. Louise Signal1,
  5. Dawn Elder4
  1. 1Health Promotion & Policy Research Unit, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
  2. 2Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
  3. 3EPOCH NZ, Wellington, New Zealand
  4. 4Department of Paediatrics & Child Health, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand
  1. Correspondence to Dr Amanda J D'Souza, Health Promotion & Policy Research Unit, Department of Public Health, University of Otago, PO Box 7343, Wellington 6242, New Zealand; amanda.dsouza{at}

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Physical punishment has been a part of childhood around the world, yet its use, and State sanctioning of its use, is problematic.1–4 In 2007, after years of community advocacy, parent education and contentious public debate, New Zealand was the first English-speaking country to achieve legal prohibition of physical punishment of children in all settings.5 At the time, New Zealand was the 18th country to enact such a ban. This number has now increased to 46 countries, but remarkably, other English-speaking nations have yet to follow suit.6 This article provides a brief case study of long-term attitude change in New Zealand based on findings from public opinion surveys over the last three decades.

The problem of physical punishment of children

Physical (or ‘corporal’) punishment is defined as ‘any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light’.7 Physical punishment infringes a child's right to dignity, bodily integrity, safety and equal protection with adults under the law.1 ,8 Many organisations, including the United Nations (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child which is tasked with monitoring implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, have long been clear that no country should permit physical punishment of a child in any setting, including the home.4 ,7 Scientific evidence supports this approach: physical discipline is less effective than positive and non-violent methods,2 and is associated with a range of adverse health and developmental outcomes.4 ,8–12 There is also evidence to suggest that physical punishment is a risk factor for child maltreatment, which is often committed under the pretext of punishment.12–14

Time–trend data on physical punishment of children are limited. Few studies have consistently measured attitudes or behaviours over time. Most long-term data come from Sweden which in 1979, following decades of legal reforms and public education, became the first country in the world to ban all forms of physical punishment of children.1 ,4 ,14 Public approval of physical punishment declined there from 53% in 1965 to 11% in 1994.15 A systematic review of legislation in 24 countries prohibiting corporal punishment found few comparable data to draw upon, but concluded that legal prohibition of physical punishment appeared ‘closely associated with decreases in support of and use of corporal punishment’.1 The extent to which law change caused the decline or resulted from declining public support has been contested.16 ,17

The case of New Zealand

The South Pacific nation of New Zealand (population 4.6 million people, including 1.0 million children) was inhabited by indigenous Ma¯ori for hundreds of years before British colonisation in the 19th century. The limited historical accounts available suggest that physical punishment of children was not common among Ma¯ori.18 Physical punishment appears to have been promoted by Christian missionaries and teachers and became embedded as a social norm across cultures in New Zealand.5 ,19 Research in the 1960s suggested that physical punishment of children was viewed as a ‘moral obligation’ of parenting.20

Like many jurisdictions, New Zealand law included a legal defence for parents or people in loco parentis who assaulted a child in their care if the force used for correction was ‘reasonable in the circumstances’.21 This provision was part of British common law applicable to colonial New Zealand, and was then fixed in New Zealand statutes from 1893, most recently in Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961.21

A full history of the journey to law reform exists.5 Briefly, advocacy started in the 1960s and gained momentum with the efforts of successive Children's Commissioners and repeated recommendations from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.5 ,19 ,20 In 1989, the law was amended to ban physical punishment in schools. By the mid-1990s, parent education campaigns had started, for example, ‘Alternatives to Smacking’.22 ,23 Reports began drawing attention to New Zealand's high rate of child maltreatment.24 Community action became increasingly organised and political support grew. A Private Member's Bill was drawn from the Parliamentary ballot in 2005. Public and media debate was tumultuous; children's rights and parental authority were framed as competing and contradictory forces and the role of the State in this domain was heavily contested.5 ,25 The law (with amendments) finally passed by 113 votes to 8 in 2007 after unprecedented agreement between major political parties.5 The law has remained intact despite an ambiguously worded and non-binding citizens-initiated referendum conducted in 2009 organised by opponents to the law change.26

Attitudes are changing in New Zealand

We conducted a systematic literature search to identify all studies describing public attitudes to physical punishment of children in New Zealand for the period from 1960 to 2013. We searched MEDLINE, Academic Search Complete, Google Scholar, the New Zealand National Library Catalogue and the Global Initiative to End all Corporal Punishment of Children website ( We used search terms such as ‘child’, ‘punishment OR smacking OR spanking’ and ‘New Zealand’ and examined the reference lists from relevant articles. We identified 26 discrete surveys and examined them to see whether a similar question had been asked to allow comparison over decades. There was considerable variation in the wording of survey questions, which was greatly influenced by context and sponsor. Some defined the circumstances in which physical punishment would be justified (such as in anger or if the child is naughty or in danger), the amount of force applied (such as using implements or causing bruising or injury), to which part of the body (such as around the head) or the age or sex of the child. Recent surveys explored specific attitudes towards regulation or law change.

Seven surveys were found that had asked a similar question allowing some comparison over time and for which information about key elements of study design was available (see table 1). The question asked about agreement with the statement ‘There are certain circumstances when it is alright for a parent to smack a child’. This question, based on a format used in Sweden, explores overall (rather than situational) attitudes to physical punishment and was first used by Jane Ritchie in 1981.27 The same question was repeated by the Children's Commissioner in 199328 and 200829; the government department responsible for child protection (now called Child, Youth and Family (CYF)) in 1995,22 November 199823 and 200030 and the charitable trust End Physical Punishment of Children (EPOCH) New Zealand in 2013.31 A 1998 Colmar Brunton Research report23 referred to the results of two earlier surveys commissioned by CYF in which the same question was asked; a 1996 follow-up survey to the ‘Breaking the Cycle’ campaign (which found 67% approval of physical punishment) and a June 1998 benchmark survey for the nationwide media campaign ‘Alternatives to Smacking’ (57% approval). Further information about these two surveys was not available despite extensive searching. Following the 2007 law change, the term ‘smack’ was replaced with ‘use physical punishment with’.29 ,31 Earlier studies surveyed people aged 15 years and older, compared with a threshold of 18 years in later studies, and were either conducted by telephone or face to face. Limited information was available about some of the surveys. For the seven surveys with sufficient data, we used Microsoft Excel (2010) and Fisher's exact method32 to calculate CIs.

Table 1

Summary of national public opinion surveys repeating a similar question about the acceptability of physical punishment of children in New Zealand 1981–2013

Figure 1 shows a substantial decline in approval of physical punishment from 89% (95% CI 84·8 to 92·2) in 1981, 58% (54·4 to 61·6) in 2008, to 40% (36·5 to 43·6) in 2013. The steepest declines occurred during the 1990s following the banning of physical punishment in schools and the start of public education campaigns, and then during the period after the 2007 law change.

Figure 1

Adult New Zealanders agreeing there are certain circumstances when it is alright for a parent to smack or use physical punishment with a child 1981–2013*. *After the 2007 law change, the term ‘smack’ was replaced with ‘use physical punishment with’. Embedded Image Ritchie27 1981 study. Face-to-face interviews (n=306) with a sample of adults from different social and occupational groups in Hamilton, New Zealand. Embedded Image Office of the Children's Commissioner and End Physical Punishment of Children New Zealand (EPOCH NZ) surveys. National telephone surveys 1993 (n=1000),28 2008 (n=750)29 and 2013 (n=750).31 Embedded Image Child, Youth and Family-commissioned surveys. National face-to-face interviews 1995 (n=500),22 1998 (n=650)23 and 2000 (n=650).30 NZ, New Zealand.

Explaining the change in public attitudes

Although there have been many public opinion surveys exploring attitudes to physical punishment of children, there are few comparable data to reliably assess trends over time in New Zealand. The data we found from nationally representative surveys of public opinion suggest that attitudes have changed in New Zealand. Extensive searches were undertaken to identify surveys; however, it is possible that some were missed. There may be some limitations in comparability of studies over time. Some of the populations surveyed may have varied in demographic composition. Earlier studies included the opinions of 15-year-olds to 17-year-olds (although evidence suggests that younger people are less approving of physical punishment30). It is possible that comparability is limited because of differences in interview techniques (telephone or face to face), accompanying material (stand-alone or omnibus survey) or terminology (changing the term from ‘smacking’ to ‘use physical punishment with’). However, the CYF-commissioned surveys used the same survey design to allow some comparability of the 1995,22 199823 and 200030 surveys. The two surveys conducted after law change used the same survey design to allow some comparability of the 200829 and 2013 surveys.31

Although it is possible that some attitudinal change could be explained by inconsistencies in survey design, this is unlikely to explain the full extent of change. Attributing causation is complex. The declining approval of physical punishment is likely to be due to a combination of interconnected factors: extensive community action over decades; a general shift in values and norms on the acceptability of violence in society; increased awareness of children's rights; increased salience of childrearing practices due to parent education initiatives; public debate and media reporting of child abuse and law change itself.5 ,17 ,33 ,34

Comparative data are not available in New Zealand to assess whether there has been a concomitant reduction in the use of physical punishment and increase in non-violent methods of discipline. Although the practice of physical punishment is influenced by many multilevel variables, such as a parent's own experience of being parented, socioeconomic position or exposure to psychosocial stressors, parental attitudes and societal norms play an important role.34–37 The decline in approval of physical punishment in Sweden from the 1960s was accompanied by a marked reduction in the use of physical punishment by parents.36


Public attitudes about the use of physical punishment by parents to discipline their children appear to have changed in New Zealand. Law change was the result of courageous community action and political leadership and was not easily secured; however, it appears to have accelerated a longer-term trend of reducing approval of physical punishment over decades. Some New Zealanders still approve of the use of physical force against the youngest members of society. Continued public education and community action promoting positive and non-violent methods of child discipline are still required. It is also important to track changes in attitudes to, and the practice of, physical punishment with carefully worded and consistent study design to inform ongoing efforts. People in English-speaking countries in particular may be encouraged by the positive change in attitudes in New Zealand following prohibition of physical punishment of children by parents. New Zealand's experience may strengthen the case for law change in other English-speaking countries and help to advance children's rights and reduce violence against the youngest and most vulnerable citizens in society.


We thank Dr James Stanley for biostatistical advice and Professor Richard Edwards for his comments on an earlier draft. We thank the Department of Public Health, University of Otago, Wellington, for providing financial support for this work.


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  • Contributors AJD is a public health physician with an interest in child health and is a Health Research Council Clinical Research Training Fellow at University of Otago. AJD prepared the manuscript, reviewed the surveys and conducted the statistical analysis. MR is a research fellow at University of Otago and a member of EPOCH New Zealand (End Punishment of Children, a charitable trust promoting positive non-violent child discipline). MR conducted the literature review, collected and reviewed the surveys and prepared a first draft. BW is co-founder of EPOCH New Zealand and former advocacy manager for UNICEF New Zealand. DE is a paediatrician and professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at University of Otago. LS is a social scientist and associate professor of Public Health at University of Otago. All authors contributed to design, intellectual content, revisions and endorsed the final version. AJD is the overall guarantor and corresponding author.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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