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The physical punishment of children
  1. David Ellimana,
  2. Margaret A Lynchb
  1. aCommunity Child Health, St George's Hospital, 2nd Floor, Clare House, Blackshaw Road, London SW17 0QT, UK, bGuy's, King's, and St Thomas' School of Medicine, Newcomen Centre, Guy's Hospital, St Thomas Street, London SE1 9RT, UK
  1. Dr Elliman email: DavidElliman{at}

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In 1998 the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) joined “Children are Unbeatable!”, an alliance of over 250 organisations supporting the outlawing of all forms of physical punishment (alliance details from 77 Holloway Road, London N7 8JZ). This article examines the evidence contributing to the College decision.

Defining physical punishment

It is important to know what is meant by the terms “mild” or “severe” “physical punishment”, “smacking”, “spanking”, etc. Paul Boateng, responding as Health Minister to the European Court of Human Rights' ruling on a case of repeated beating of a young English boy by his stepfather, said that “Any case of serious violence against a child ... would horrify parents”. However, he went on to say that “... this has nothing to do with the issue of smacking. The overwhelming majority of parents know the difference between smacking and beating.”1 Mr Boateng's confidence is misplaced. Juries, in a string of recent UK cases, have acquitted parents who have hit children with whips, canes, riding crops, electric flexes, belts, and other implements, causing severe bruising, wheals, and cuts.2

Researchers3 in England found that 35% of children in a sample of ordinary two parent families had received “severe” physical punishment, defined as the intention or potential to cause injury or psychological damage, use of implements, repeated use, or use over a long period of time. Parents' views are coloured by their own experiences as children. A study of 11 600 adults4 showed that 74% of those who had been punched, kicked, or choked by their parents and almost half of those who had been injured more than once did not consider they had been abused. However, children are quite clear about the intended effect. A 1998 study sought the views of 76 children aged between 5 and 7 years. …

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