November 2005

Evaluating the subtle impact of a ban on corporal punishment of children in Germany

In November 2000 the German Government introduced into the Civil Code an explicit ban on any physical punishment by parents.  It reads:
" Children have a right to a non-violent upbringing.  Corporal punishment, psychological   injuries and other degrading measures are impermissible."

Corporal punishment had been banned in schools since the 1970s. The idea behind the concept was that children should not be seen as simply objects of law but also as subjects, individuals who have explicit rights.  The legal reform does not mean that children can sue for a non-violent upbringing and the new law has primarily a symbolic meaning and a number of subtle legal consequences.  Until it was introduced the civil code provided justification for a wide range of corporal punishments.  Under German law the new law means that physical punishment of one's own child is now a criminal offence.  The impact on legal practice in family courts has not been evaluated yet.

An increase in prosecutions was not one of the rationales for the change that was intended primarily to give parents new guidelines on how to behave towards their children.

On behalf of the Ministry of Justice and the Federal Ministry for Family Affairs, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth, representative nationwide surveys were conducted in 2001 and 2002.  These were compared with studies undertaken in the 1990s.

The surveys reveal a significant decrease in the prevalence of corporal punishments and a high acceptance of the legal prohibition.

Among parents there has been a significant decrease of more than 10% in slapping their children between 1996 and 2001 - 59% of parents interviewed in 2001 in comparison with 72% in 1996 reported ever giving their children slight slaps.

In 2002 only 14% of children interviewed reported ever being slapped hard across the face whereas in 1992 almost 44% reported this treatment.  Only 4% in 2002 had experienced very serious physical punishments (eg, beaten to the point of bruising).  In 1992 the rates were almost 8 to 10 times higher.

Amongst a group of families categorised "violence prone" (about the same proportion of the population as previously) there was found to be some decrease in use of the more serious forms of physical punishment.

The ban on corporal punishment was intended to change attitudes.  Three conditions were regarded as essential if the symbolic law was to be effective:
- an explicit and easily understandable prohibitio
- the new norm must be widely communicated
- the ban must meet with high levels of public approval.

The author regards the first pre-requisite as fulfilled, but the second only partly fulfilled despite a publicity campaign in the press and on TV.  (Parents and children in families that were less prone to violence were better informed than those from "violence prone" families.)

In Germany there seems to have been a relatively high level of disapproval of corporal punishment for some time, and changes in attitudes since the law reform have been minimal.  In 2002 87% of parents supported the concept of non-violent parenting as the ideal.

Nevertheless, after the 2000 reform parents who were aware of the law reform were more likely to regard any violence in a child's upbringing as illegal and unacceptable than those who were not aware of the law reform.  Additionally concepts of violence are stricter.  Parents who knew of the legislative change had a higher sensibility towards violence.

In the view of the author:
"... the prohibition of corporal punishment works primarily by making a linguistic space available through its code, that is, it acts as a semantic instrument that defines the interpretations and reality constructs of the legal recipients.  A legal ban on violence in child-rearing contributes to legal consciousness, and furthermore it can shift the semantic horizons of parents, which - in our case - leads to a stricter, more sensitive definition of violence.  These are the elements of the assumed symbolic meaning of the prohibition of corporal punishment."

Kai-D Bussmann (Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg, Germany) Child Abuse Review Vol 13, Issue 5, September-October 2004, pp. 292-311