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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 …

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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.