November 2004

Changing the social norm on physical punishment of children; messages from the media

Extracts from a presentation made at the ISPCAN conference by Beth Wood and Emma Davies

Change in social attitudes about physical punishment of children is an important component in primary prevention of child abuse in New Zealand.  It is now well established that physical punishment is a risk factor of child abuse.  Joan Durrant explains the relationship between physical punishment and child abuse in an article published recently in CHILDREN, the journal of the New Zealand Children's Commissioner (Durrant, 2004).

  • Physical punishment is a known risk factor for abuse.
  • Physical abuse is the end point in the behaviour of some parents who have chosen to use physical force as a means of correcting a child's behaviour.

Societal messages that convey approval of physical punishment increase the likelihood of its use.  They contribute to a societal setting in which abuse is more likely to occur

What factors influence public opinion and what are the resistances to change?  We were curious about what a media analysis would tell us.  Late in 2003 there was sustained media interest in physical punishment of children.

A review of print media from the four major daily papers in New Zealand and a number of local papers found a total 73 items published over the period September - November 2003.  Of these 42 were letters to the editors.

A positive trend was apparent in much of the material reviewed (excluding letters to the editor).  A range of views was canvassed, including those of politicians, academics and child advocates.  There was considerable focus on the place of legislative change in changing attitudes about violence to children, and reassurance that legislative change would not lead to prosecutions for minor assaults.

But it is the letters to the editor that are of particular interest.  It was through these that we hoped to gain insight into the kinds of attitudes that challenge us.  We reviewed 42 letters to the editor.  Of these nine were supportive of change in the law and/or against the use of physical punishment.  The other 33 presented views against law change and/or justified and supported the use of physical punishment.  Themes from these letters against change can be clustered under four headings:

  • Opposition to interference in family life and parents' rights.
  • Physical punishment in its moderate forms does not harm children but rather benefits them.
  • Without physical punishment, children will be impossible to control.
  • There is no connection between physical punishment and child abuse.

The most common theme was opposition to interference in family life.  The most vociferous proponents of the status quo justified their views by expressing their opposition to state interference in their family lives or United Nations interference in New Zealand's domestic matters.  In many letters there was no attempt at analysis; for example:

It's no use quoting what UNICEF says about not smacking children.  [Previous correspondent] may or may not be aware of that evil, humanistic organisation's aim of weakening and ultimately destroying parents' authority over children - the eradication of the family in effect.  (The Dominion Post, 11 October 2003).

Many correspondents justified the use of physical punishment as a necessary and effective disciplinary tool, and sometimes as a loving act; that did not do them or their children any harm.  Others feared that they could not keep their children safe (from running out on the road, for example) without the use of physical force.

I consider that it may be necessary to lightly smack a child on the hand to avoid them getting burnt for instance.  (Otago Daily Times, 8 October 2003).

Other correspondents not only saw no harm in smacking - they believed that the consequences of not smacking children would be out-of-control children.

If the law is changed, children will take advantage of it, and it will breed children now and in the future when they are adults who have no respect for authority.  Mothers and fathers must be allowed to smack their children if they are unreasonable.  You cannot reason with an unreasonable child.  (The Press, 17 October 2003).

Some argued that changing the law or discouraging physical punishment would not reduce violence to children and questioned any connection between physical punishment and child abuse.

Why is healthy physical discipline being confused with child abuse?  A violent society is not the result of smacking.  It is the result of poor discipline of the young.  This should include corporal punishment when appropriate.  Responsible corporal punishment, by encouraging respect and discipline for others, reduces levels of real violence.  (Christchurch Press, 17 October 2003).

What did we learn from the review of the media items?  Two things stand out.  The first is that there is a section of society who believe in ‘family autonomy' and whose response to criticism of physical punishment is deeply emotive and angry.  It is unlikely that these people will be amenable to information from research.  The findings and recommendations of outside authorities are not useful in changing the attitudes of these people.  It is very possible that this group will never move, and that waiting for them to change is a waste of time.

On the other hand some of the letters reflect a lack of good information about the risk factors associated with physical punishment and the fact that physical punishment is not a necessary part of positive parenting.  The evidence from research needs to be made available not only to parents but also to the community at large.


Durrant JE (2004).  Physical punishment and child abuse.  Office of the Children's Commissioner.  CHILDREN.  No 50.

Office of the Children's Commissioner and Children's Issues Centre, University of Otago (2004).  The discipline and guidance of children; A summary of research . Wellington Office of the Children's Commissioner