WHEN was the last time someone physically assaulted you? And do you think you deserved it?

My guess is that the sting of the slap or the thud of the punch upon your face will be painfully etched in your memory. Unless you’re a masochist, you’re unlikely to believe the assault was justified. You may even experience flashbacks or suffer post-traumatic stress.

A physical attack violates our sense of personal integrity – we become deeply vulnerable and our self-confidence and trust in others are destroyed, albeit temporarily. As adults, we can usually recover by seeking solace and sympathy from those closest to us. Sometimes, we involve the police so that the assailant is brought to account under the law. But imagine if you’re hit habitually – perhaps on a daily or weekly basis and nobody helps you and there is no law to protect you. Worse, imagine if you are a child, small, vulnerable and not physically able to defend yourself and the person assaulting you is your mum or dad.

Loading article content

Today in Scotland, it is still legal to carry out a "justifiable assault" on a child for reasons of punishment. Provided no bruising, bleeding or trace marks are caused, parents are allowed to hit their children.

Not for much longer, though. Last week, the Scottish Government agreed to make law a bill proposed by Green MSP, John Finnie, that will make smacking and physical punishment of children a criminal offence. Scotland will be the first country in the UK to pass such a law and in doing so will grant the same protective rights to children that already apply to adults.

The debate on smacking and physical punishment of children has raged for a long time and the homespun mantra of “spare the rod, spoil the child” still has a lot of clout in the school of popular wisdom. This nugget of folklore is a smokescreen for parents who are unable or unwilling to really think about the potential long-term harm they cause when they hit their child.

Over the last 10 years, there have been 74 major studies across the world and they have all come to the same conclusion: smacking is bad for children and their relationship with their parents.

Hitting a child doesn’t work as a deterrent and has poor outcomes in correcting bad behaviour. Children brought up in an environment where physical punishment is the parent’s default mode for discipline and "teaching" them how to behave better, are more at risk of harm from escalating aggression and child abuse. At school, a hit child is more likely to misbehave and get involved in conflict with others, potentially leading to delinquency in teen years.

Research also shows that children who are physically punished are more likely to become perpetrators of domestic abuse and sexual violence in adulthood and are more vulnerable to mental illness and substance abuse. A punished child is usually a frightened child who does as they’re told – not because they understand the difference between right and wrong, but simply because they are frightened and shamed.

Smacking, slapping, punching, pinching, kicking and grabbing can never be dispensed with a "light touch" or lovingly administered. Once the physical boundary is crossed, the contract of trust and respect between parent and child is severely compromised.

I’ve yet to meet a parent who has not reached the end of their tether with a child who seems to resist reason and insists on doing exactly what you tell them not to. Yes, it’s infuriating, especially if social circumstances mean you have no support, no money to buy food, pay bills or take the kids on a bus or train ride to while away a rainy day during school holidays. But such harsh realities of life and living are not caused by children; mostly, they’re caused by a society and systems that fail to support parents with limited personal and economic resources. Children are biologically programmed to mimic their parents and will strive to internalise and identify with their behaviour. The sooner we prioritise educating children right at the outset of their lives about the psychological and social problems caused by physical punishment, the sooner we’ll have a generation of parents who understand that it’s always a bad idea to hit small children.

Good on the Scottish Government for deciding to spare the rod, but their admirable intentions must be reinforced by education and support for parents who are all too often struggling to understand their own feelings and reactions to the world they find themselves in.