Smacking: Parents who were physically punished as children are more likely to punish their children

Connor IbbetsonData Journalist
September 27, 2021, 1:16 PM UTC

They are also more likely to think smacking can improve behaviour in children

A new study combining and reviewing 20 years of research has found that smacking children leads to poorer behaviour overall and is ultimately harmful to a child. But what do Britons think, and does their own childhood experience influence their opinion as adults?

Most people experienced some form of physical punishment as children

Overall, the vast majority of adults (83%) say they were physically punished as children at least once. This includes one in nine (11%) punished often, another 25% punished sometimes, while 25% were punished but not very often, and 22% being punished once or twice. Around one in eight (13%) of adults say their parents or guardians never punished them physically.

Among people aged between 18 and 24, 29% say they were never physically punished, over double compared to the general population. This compared to only 7% of 45 to 54-year olds who were never physically punished in their adolescence, the lowest of the age groups.

Older Britons tend to report a higher frequency of physical punishments as children, with two in five (41%) 45 to 54-year olds saying their parents or guardians punished them physically either often or sometimes. For those between 18 and 24, 28% say the same, as do 27% of 25 to 34-year olds.

Men are also slightly more likely to say they frequently received physically punishment (39%) compared to 33% of women.

Smacking or spanking (93%) was the most common punishment for those physically reprimanded by their parents or guardians, followed by 25% who say they were hit with an object such as a stick or cane. While smacking is fairly consistent across gender (92% of men and 94% of women who were punished physically) men are more likely to have been punished with an object (29%) than women were (20%).

One in eleven (9%) also say they were made to rinse out their mouths with unpleasant substances such as soap or pepper.

Parents who were physically punished as children are twice as likely to do the same to their own children

While eight in ten Brits say they were punished, only some 62% of parents have physically punished their children, versus 34% who have never done so. However, they say at some point we all turn into our parents, and this survey shows that those who were physically punished during their upbringing are likely to repeat the behaviour.

Among adults who were physically punished themselves, some six in ten (65%) say they have punished their own children at least once. This includes 1% who do so “often”, 16% who do so “sometimes” 19% using physical punishments “not often” and 29% who have only used them once or twice. Around three in ten of those punished physically (32%) say they have not done the same in their time as parents.

Those never punished as children are also likely to have followed their parents’ example and are over twice as likely to say they have never used physical punishments on their children (69%). However some 29% say they have done so, but at lower frequencies compared to those who were punished as children.

Parents with younger children are also less likely to have used physical punishments. Two in five (44%) of parents with children under 18 say they have never done so, compared to 27% of parents whose children are now over 18.

Britons disagree with the experts over the impact on behaviour

The research review, which was published in The Lancet concludes that physical punishments such as smacking actually led to increased behavioural issues, and no improvements in attention or cognitive ability. However, the general public tends to disagree.

Some 34% of the public think that physical punishments for misbehaving children result in better behaviour, 18% say it makes no difference overall and 22% think it makes behaviour worse.

Among those who were punished themselves, 39% think physical punishments can improve a child’s behaviour, while 19% think it makes no difference and 21% think it makes things worse. Those not punished themselves instead tend to agree with the researchers that physical punishments lead to worse behaviour overall (42%), with only 13% thinking doing so can improve behaviour in children.

Of parents who have physically punished their own children at least once, 49% say doing so generally improves the behaviour of misbehaving children, while 21% think it makes little difference and 9% actually say it worsens future behaviour.

Should it be legal for parents to smack their children?

The researchers end their report by calling on the government to follow the example of Scotland, Wales and the other 62 countries that have a blanket ban on physical punishments for children – but Britons broadly think the oppose.

Nearly 49% think the current law, that allows parents to carry out “reasonable chastisement” that does not leave bruises or cuts, should remain while 36% think it should be illegal.

However, this result is the lowest since we started tracking this question, falling seven points since June this year. In August 2019 some 64% of people believed smacking children should remain legal.

Among parents with grown up children, some six in ten believe the law should allow parents to physically punish their children, versus 27% who think it should be illegal. Parents with children under 18 are split however, with 45% thinking physical punished should be allowed and 41% thinking it should be banned.

Those who were physically punished themselves are also more likely to think smacking should be legal (53%) rather than illegal (35%). Oppositely, the majority of those who were not punished physically as children generally think it should be illegal (56%), compared to 29% who think it should be.

See full results here