Nathan Hodson analyses the effectiveness of a smacking ban, in response to comments from Nadhim Zahawi and Wes Streeting on the topic last week, and suggests a way positive way forward.
Smacking children is an ineffective approach to discipline. But instead of getting caught in a debate between banning or not banning smacking, Labour needs to support parents to limit problem behaviour in healthy ways.
The place of corporal punishment in the home is back in the news because Nadhim Zahawi has said that his wife uses smacking to discipline his daughter. Zahawi’s real point is that the government should not legislate to prevent parents smacking their children because parents should be able to make decisions about what happens in their own home. This debate shows that the Tories have no real plan to strengthen families.
To be clear, there are already laws restricting how parents discipline their children at home. In England, corporal punishment is rightly illegal where it leaves a mark. On 21st March 2022, Wales introduced a ban on smacking children. A similar law has already been in place in Scotland since 2020. Zahawi was arguing that no such law should be introduced in England.
Wes Streeting commented, making personal and general observations. He admitted that he had been lightly smacked as a child and acknowledged it hadn’t traumatised him. He suggested that the outcomes of bans in Scotland and Wales should be reviewed before legislating in England. Streeting’s suggestion is not an unreasonable approach to policy, although it only gets us part way.
Think this through with me: A child is being naughty. The parent becomes angry and doesn’t know how to control the child. The parent knows they cannot smack the child. Instead, the parent might shout in the child’s face, might insult and demean the child, or might burn with resentment towards the child and withdraw love over days and weeks.
Even with the smacking ban, the outcomes for the child are traumatising and have lasting effects. Banning smacking doesn’t mean positive parenting techniques automatically fill the gap. If anything, a ban risks creating the impression of solving the problem, while more pernicious harm continues.
A Positive Alternative
Instead, a Labour approach needs to look upstream: parents should be equipped to nurture and discipline their children in healthy ways. This may sound like dodging the question with sci-fi solutions, but in fact we have ‘oven ready’ evidence-based parenting programmes to help parents improve child behaviour. The research and development has been done over the last 30 years. Several evidence-based programmes exist to upskill parents and reduce angry, out of control interactions.
These programmes – like Incredible Years, Triple P, or Parenting Matters Online – aim to increase the daily love and affection between parent and child. This makes it much easier for parents to exert authority when children misbehave. They reduce the frequency of punishments, and they explain how to ignore and redirect low level bad behaviour before it escalates. They ensure the limits placed on children are consistent and predictable. And several studies show that they improve parenting quality and child mental health.
Wes Streeting is probably right that we don’t know whether smacking bans are effective. They might just replace smacking with something worse. But let’s look forward to how we can help families do better. A Labour government should make parenting skills programmes freely available to any parent struggling with child behaviour. This is how Labour governments strengthen families, improve childhoods, and transform lives.
Nathan Hodson is a mental health doctor in Coventry and Warwickshire and a researcher in mental health and wellbeing at Warwick Medical School. He is chair of the Young Fabians Health Network. He tweets at @nathanhodson.