Smacking ‘teaches very little and makes behaviour worse’

Smacking children makes their behaviour worse and produces long-term psychological effects, according to one of the most definitive studies yet.

Fifty years of research involving 160,000 children has been analysed for a study into the consequences of smacking and, the author says, the conclusion is clear: “Smacking doesn’t teach children anything other than to fear their parents.”

According to the United Nations, which has called for a ban, 80 per cent of children are smacked. In the UK it is legal provided that it is “reasonable chastisement”. In much of the rest of Europe smacking is illegal.

For a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, 75 smaller studies were analysed, with the researchers looking for links between smacking and negative behaviour such as psychological problems and aggression.

They found that as a disciplinary intervention it was useless. “It is not making children better behaved; there is no relationship in the short term at all,” said Elizabeth Gershoff from the University of Texas at Austin.

In the long term it was counterproductive. “Parents want their children not to be aggressive in the future. Aggression, ironically, is one of the main reasons they smack. But we found the more you smack the more aggressive they become.”

Critics of similar studies in the past have argued that they might be recording the unremarkable fact that children who behave worse get punished more. Others argue that research may simply be finding out that aggressive and antisocial parents make aggressive and antisocial children.

Professor Gershoff tried to account for both factors using longitudinal studies — looking at how smacking and behaviour evolve over a period of time. “Some say, ‘Isn’t it just that bad children are smacked?’. That is partly true. But even when you take into account their initial aggression, you still see a relationship between smacking and increased aggression over time.”

Professor Gershoff argued that the research showed that the distinction between smacking and abuse was a false one. “On average the effect of smacking is about two thirds that of physical abuse. There is a continuum of violence; these are just different manifestations of it. Smacking is a form of assault. We don’t allow any other people in society to be hit, so I don’t see why the most vulnerable in society shouldn’t be protected in the same way as adults.”

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