OPINION: Despite studies demonstrating the impact of smacking on children corporal punishment is still considered a socially acceptable and ‘legal’ form of abuse.
OPINION: Despite studies demonstrating the impact of smacking on children corporal punishment is still considered a socially acceptable and ‘legal’ form of abuse.

The cost to society of corporal punishment

If a parent smacks a child, they could be setting them up to become either a victim or perpetrator of domestic violence or abuse.

If a daughter is being physically punished it is more likely she will be a victim and the son, an offender. This is what the research unambiguously tells us.

Of course not every child who has experienced physical punishment goes on to become involved in domestic abuse in adulthood.

There is no causal relationship at work here as there are a multitude of interacting factors in play but there is a greater risk that this negative consequence will occur.

Some researchers estimate that as many as 30% of children may go onto being a victim or offender but there is a need for more research.

Let’s talk a little about risk. Shark experts tell us that if we swim in the ocean at dawn, dusk and at night we run a greater risk of being bitten than swimming during the day. So most of us take this advice on board and we don’t swim at these risky times.

Similarly, hitting and hurting children carries with it a risk in the future for those we are supposed to love and care for.

Fortunately, we are seeing an increasing percentage of parents rejecting physical force and using positive parenting strategies to guide their children on how to behave.

What else do we know about children who get hit by parents or by significant others? Well, there is a greater risk of children becoming aggressive in childhood, committing dating violence as young adults and approving of or accepting violence in close adult relationships.

There are two other things we know.

First, men who have been convicted of domestic violence and who are in prison are more likely to have been corporally punished in childhood. Second, families in which corporal punishment is used, are more likely to be families where other types of violence are also occurring, such as violence against women.

Some 60 countries worldwide have now placed a ban on corporal punishment in both their schools and homes.

New Zealand became the first English speaking country to do so in 2007. But not so Australia, where the use of ‘reasonable’ physical force is still legally defensible in homes and also legal in Queensland schools.

Unfortunately, this established relationship between child physical punishment and later abuse in adulthood has been historically ignored by major public inquiries.

Take for instance, the Taskforce on Domestic and Family Violence in Queensland chaired by The Honourable Quentin Bryce in 2014, the 2014 inquiry into Domestic Violence undertaken by the Commonwealth Parliaments’ Finance and Public Administration References Committee and the 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence.

All three ignored submitted evidence on this link and all three failed to make any recommendations in their reports to protect children from physical punishment.

Not a week goes by when the scourge of family and domestic violence is not mentioned in the media.

The cost to our economy runs into the billions and the loss of life and harm caused by domestic abuse is both tragic and unacceptable.

Indeed as you read this and across Australia, the misuse of power and control by parents is harming those who will become the adults and caregivers of tomorrow.

So what response do we get from our politicians to domestic abuse? Certainly there is empathy, calls for more assistance for victims, increased penalties for offenders and support for front line workers.

What we don’t hear is any acknowledgment that the so called ‘right’ of parents to hit and hurt their children is a factor that could well be contributing to our massive problem of domestic abuse.

For our politicians this issue is a ‘no go‘ area, even for those who have ministerial or shadow ministerial responsibility for reducing domestic abuse.

Australia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and has made a commitment to end all forms of violence towards children.

Yet corporal punishment is still a socially acceptable and a ‘legal’ form of family abuse. There is no consistency here, just neglect.

It is too early to say whether banning corporal punishment will have a direct impact on the rate of domestic abuse but a ban will remove one factor that contributes to it.

Furthermore, a ban could ultimately have a positive societal impact in a country by changing attitudes towards the use of violence in our society.

For the evidence behind this article, I refer readers to the 2018 published work of Angelika Poulsen and her article “The Role of Corporal Punishment of Children in the Perpetuation of Intimate Partner Violence”.

Alan Corbett, Moore Park Beach