Physical punishment of children

Children are the only people in Scotland who can be legally assaulted. 

A defence of ‘justifiable assault’ means that parents can lawfully cause children physical pain as a punishment. The UK is one of only five countries in the European Union not yet committed to law reform on this issue. 

Why does this matter? 

Firstly, it’s unfair. It’s unlawful to hit an adult, so surely the smallest and most vulnerable members of our society should enjoy the same protection.

Secondly, child physical punishment is bad for children. Evidence shows that it can severely damage parent-child relationships, be a predictor of emotional and behavioural problems, and affect children’s mental health. 

Thirdly, children and parents alike tell us that they do not like physical punishment, and that it doesn’t work.

Lastly, physical punishment of children harms our society. Children subjected to it have been shown to be more likely to be aggressive to siblings, to bully other children, to take part in aggressively anti-social behaviour in adolescence, to be violent to their spouses and their own children, and to commit violent crimes. There are established links between the physical punishment of children and other forms of violence, including violence against women.

Changing the law

We want the justifiable assault defence to be removed, so children have the same protection from assault as adults. This isn’t about criminalising parents. We’re not asking for a new offence to be created, or calling for the police or courts to intervene more readily than they do at present - we believe that decisions as to whether to prosecute a parent or carer should always take into account the best interests of the child. Rather, we want to send a clear message: that violence against children is unacceptable, that children should enjoy the same human rights as adults, and that non-violent parenting works and is in everyone’s interests. 

There is strong evidence from countries that have banned child physical punishment that a change in the law can help change attitudes. After Sweden did so in 1979, the use of corporal punishment steadily decreased, as did numbers of child deaths and of children severely beaten. There was no significant rise in the number of parents being prosecuted.

Parenting isn’t easy and all families struggle sometimes. Yet legal ambiguity around whether it is, or isn’t, okay to hit a child doesn’t help families to deal with challenges and build positive relationships. 

Download Equally Protected - a review of the evidence on the impact of physical punishment (pdf 1.4MB)

Children Are Unbeatable! Scotland 

Children 1st chairs the Scottish branch of the Children Are Unbeatable! (CAU) Alliance, a group of organisations working to end the lawful physical punishment of children in the UK. The explicit aim of CAU is to ensure that children enjoy equal protection from assault, under the law, as adults.

CAU also believes strongly that positive, non-violent parenting is best for both parents and children, and that support for parents and families should accompany a change in the law upholding children’s rights to full protection from assault.

If you would like to sign up to Children are Unbeatable, as an individual or organisation, please email: policy@children1st.org.uk

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