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A collective approach to smacking children

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Thursday, 12 April 2007

The smacking debate is not a contest between the rights of parents and those of their children. Their interests are harmonious. Children grow to be adults and it would be misconceived to adopt norms which make their lives more difficult when they grow up. That’s why we should never say never to smacking. However, on the basis of the current information the circumstances in which smacking is permissible should to be considerably restricted - only to situations where it is necessary to protect children or others.

To smack or not to smack? That’s the issue dividing many Australians following the $2.5 million federal government funded “Every Child is Important” campaign developed by the Australian Childhood Foundation telling parents to stop chastising their kids.

Is the campaign the mother of all nanny laws, constituting an unreasonable incursion into family affairs, or is the government right to try to curtail the actions of the three-quarters of Australia parents that smack their children?


Regrettably, the campaign by the ACF will do nothing to resolve the smacking issue. The lynchpin of the campaign is that smacking children teaches them that violence is acceptable.

Parents, even when they are sleep deprived and exhausted, can see through hyperbole and spin. They also place enormous weight on their own personal experiences. Most parents were smacked when they were children and it is incontestable that we live in a society which strongly disapproves of violence but which is demonstrably harmful.

There is also a vast difference between the occasional controlled, strategic disciplinary tap on the bottom and an uncontrolled violent assault. It is absurd to think that parents aren’t morally sophisticated enough to recognise this difference.

The law recognises that it is acceptable to use reasonable and moderate force to chastise children and while there is no bright line between acceptable and excessive force, few parents are investigated - let alone - convicted of child assault.

There is surprisingly little concrete information regarding the long term impact of smacking on children. There is strong evidence suggesting that violent criminals are disproportionately subjected to smacking as children. However, nearly all adults who were smacked as children don’t grow up to be murderers, rapists or even “road-ragers”.

Thus, the “smacking leads to problematic violence” mantra won’t cut it with most parents.


The only way to sensibly deal with the smacking issue is to stop beating up on the truth and rationally look at the interests of all parties concerned against the backdrop of accepted moral principles and empirical data regarding the effects of smacking.

The intentional infliction of harm is undesirable. Certain consequences, in the form of pain caused to children, carry more weight in the moral calculus than speculative consequences, such as teaching children behavioural lessons. These principles provide powerful reasons against smacking.

Moreover, parents don’t have an inherent right to smack “their” children. Liberty is an important ideal but children are autonomous human beings with full moral standing and liberty is not so boundless to entitle individuals to restrict the liberty of others by directing their behaviour through acts of violence.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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