Smacking children: what are the laws across the UK?

Is it legal to smack your child? Not in some parts of the UK. And in other parts, it depends on how old your child is and how "reasonable" the physical punishment is...

naughty child sitting

In both Scotland and Wales, there is now a legal ban on smacking children (it became illegal in Scotland in November 2020 and in Wales in March 2022). In other parts of the UK, smacking a child is still legal, in certain circumstances.

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So, what exactly does the law say when it comes to smacking children?

In England, Northern Ireland:

  • It is illegal for a parent or carer to smack their own child unless it amounts to “reasonable punishment” – which is assessed by taking into account the child’s age and the force of the smack (see I live in England or Northern Ireland and I smack by child: how do I know if this is legal or not?, below).
  • It is illegal for teachers, nursery workers and workers in other education settings to hit children in their care – ever.
  • It is illegal for a privately employed babysitter or nanny to smack a child in their care, unless the parent has given specific permission.

In Scotland and Wales:

  • There is NO legal justification for hitting your child. The defence of “reasonable punishment” that exists in England and Northern Ireland does not count in Scotland or Wales.

I live in Scotland or Wales and I smack my child: is this illegal?

Yes. Children in Scotland and Wales now have the same protection in law from physical assault as adults do.

This mean parents could face arrest and criminal charges for any use of physical punishment on their children. Physical punishment is defined in this instance as:

  • smacking
  • slapping and smacking with a hand or an implement
  • kicking, shaking or throwing
  • scratching, pinching, biting,
  • pulling hair or boxing ears,
  • forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions
  • burning, scalding
  • forced ingestion

I live in England or Northern Ireland and I smack my child: how do I know if this is legal or not?

As the law stands in England and Northern Ireland right now, it’s illegal for a parent to smack their own child, except where the smacking is “reasonable punishment” .

The trouble is, “reasonable punishment” isn’t really defined in the legislation, meaning the decision about whether a smack is reasonable or not depends on the individual circumstances of each “punishment”.

It’s generally understood that factors that would be considered include the age of the child and the nature or force of the smack. And what is clear is that “reasonable punishment” would not include any smacking that left a child with:

  • swelling
  • bruises
  • cuts or grazes
  • reddening of the skin
  • abrasions
  • scratches
  • a black eye

What is the reason for making smacking illegal?

Many many people now think of smacking as an old-fashioned and harmful practice, that only serves to reinforce the idea that violence is the way to resolve a problem or get someone to do what you want.

Many countries in the world are moving towards an outright ban on smacking– and lots of British children’s charities, including the NSPCC and Barnado’s, have come out in favour of an outright ban on smacking in all countries of the UK .

In a statement about Scotland’s law against smacking, Barnardo’s Scotland said:

Giving children full protection against assault will send a clear message to all of us about how we treat each other as human beings, and underpin efforts to reduce violence across the whole of society

Many celebrities have spoken up on the issue, too. Perhaps most famously, back in 2017, singer Peter Andre made headlines when he joined a UK anti-smacking campaign.

“Listen, when I was growing up, my brothers and I were smacked,” he said. “But back then, I think a lot of parents smacked out of frustration and there weren’t really many other methods of discipline out there.

“Times have changed now, and I’ve never needed to smack my children to discipline them. I really think it should be banned.”

On our MadeForMums forum, plenty of mums agree, with RainbowMummy saying: “I wouldn’t smack my child, as I do not believe there is ever actually a valid reason to.

“We wouldn’t hit a stranger’s child, so why one of your own? There are far better, more civilised ways of dealing with behavioural issues that cause no physical harm to a child. I think smacking is outdated and wrong.”

What’s the case for keeping smacking legal?

While Scotland’s and Wales’ decision to make smacking illegal might well pave the way for other UK nations to follow suit, not everyone agrees with an outright ban on smacking.

A lobbying group called Be Reasonable are concerned that smacking bans will mean good parents are criminalised unnecessarily.

There are plenty of studies that suggest smacking a child has a negative effect or no effect but, in response, smacking campaigners will point to a 2013 study carried out by researchers at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York suggesting that, at least in older children, smacking can be a positive thing as long as the child knows why they are being disciplined, and as long as such discipline is tempered with loving behaviour from the parent.

And that is a view that is sometimes expressed by parents on our forum, too – although almost of all them say that they never smack their child hard.

“I will use smacking at the last resort,” says one. “Sometimes, if he’s naughty at school or at home with me or his dad, then we would use some other form of punishment, such as taking his toys away from him or taking the control for his X-Box. As for smacking, we just tap his hands or his leg to let him know that we don’t accept misbehaving.”

Pics: Getty

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