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New Australian study finds no legal or scientific support for corporal punishment, recommends banning the practice

By Alexandra Mae Jones, Writer

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    Toronto, Ontario (CTV Network) — A new study analyzing Australian law and the evidence against corporal punishment for children is making the case that Australia should reform its laws surrounding whether or not a guardian is allowed to strike a child as part of punishment — a controversial aspect of childrearing that is also still legal in Canada.

The study, published Tuesday in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, reviewed a wide base of studies surrounding the impact of corporal punishment on a child’s development and wellbeing, and found the vast majority of studies concluded corporal punishment was associated with negative outcomes for children.

These included reducing trust in others, causing lower self-esteem, contributing to mental health difficulties and increasing the risk of substance abuse and violence later on in a child’s life.

One meta-analysis reviewing 75 studies across 13 countries only found one in which spanking was not associated with a negative outcome.

“The evidence clearly shows that corporal punishment has no benefits to children, and its detrimental effects are wide reaching,” researchers wrote in the study. “Children who experience corporal punishment are at greater risk for later violence in intimate relationships as adults and using corporal punishment with their own children, contributing to intergenerational transmission of violence within families.”

In Australia, corporal punishment is still legal in all eight states and territories. In some states it is specified that “reasonable” physical force may be applied to a child for the purpose of punishment only by a parent or “a person acting for a parent of the child.”

Canada’s rules surrounding corporal punishment provide some structure but stop short of outlawing it — something which has been hotly debated in the country for years.

Section 43 of the Criminal Code allows parents/caregivers, as well as schoolteachers, to use corrective force on a child. A 2004 Supreme Court challenge found it was constitutional, but specified force had to be minor enough to be considered “transitory and trifling,” with no blows to the head permitted and no use of objects such as belts or rulers to strike a child.

Australia’s legal framework for corporal punishment has “remained essentially unchanged since British colonisation and the adoption of English law in the early and mid-19th century,” according to the authors of this new study, who are part of a group of researchers from a range of Australian universities and research labs called the Parenting and Family Research Alliance.

They argue in this new research the legal underpinning surrounding corporal punishment in Australia is outdated and needs to change.


Researchers first noted when reviewing the scientific evidence surrounding corporal punishment, very few studies find that it works.

Some studies found that spanking or other forms of corporal punishment were effective in providing an immediate change in a child’s behaviour, but were not effective in the long-term.

Corporal punishment also interferes with a child’s ability to develop their own instinctual understanding of right and wrong, according to some studies. One study referenced in the new research found that the use of corporal punishment was associated with “lower levels of moral internalization” — meaning children were less able to make a moral view a part of their personality and internal thought process.

And while the evidence on whether or not corporal punishment provides the desired outcome — changing a child’s behaviour in the future — is weak, the evidence that corporal punishment has lasting negative impacts on children into adulthood is overwhelming, researchers found.

It was associated with poor outcomes in adulthood in terms of substance abuse, relationships and poverty, and was associated with poor outcomes in terms of a child’s relationship with their parents.

Some studies even showed corporal punishment can impact the structures of the brain, with some research showing exposure to physical and emotional abuse is associated with reductions in brain volume in both the cortex and the subcortex.


The other factor in determining whether corporal punishment should be outlawed or not is the question of whether children deserve the same human rights applied to any other group of people.

If it isn’t right for someone to strike their romantic partner, why is it permitted to strike a child, who has even less ability to defend themselves? This is the question that researchers aimed to answer by looking at the legal precedent established internationally.

In 1989, the United Nations released the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty which aimed to set universal standards for basic human rights for children, including rights that pertain to the specifics of being under the age of 18.

Part of this convention included a call for nations to outlaw corporal punishment, something that had only been outlawed by a handful of countries at that point, starting with Sweden in 1979.

As of 2022, 65 countries or territories had prohibited all corporal punishment of children, including within the home.

Researchers noted some governments argue allowing parents to use “reasonably” levels of force in the punishment of children doesn’t violate the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

However, they quoted the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the elected body responsible for interpreting the Convention, as having established that “all forms of physical or mental violence does not leave room for any level of legalized violence against children.”

Both Australia and Canada have signed on as parties to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

“As a technical matter of law, Australia is not required to enact legal change simply as a consequence of treaty ratification, and further complications are presented by our federated nation structure, whereby corporal punishment laws are within the power of the states and territories,” researchers wrote. “Nevertheless, Australia is able to take available steps to abolish corporal punishment, and its failure to do so has prompted severe rebukes from the international community.”

The question of outlawing corporal punishment can be a complex one because of several competing interests, researchers noted, such as governments being concerned about intruding too far on parental rights, as parenting is believed by many to be a private role.

“The ‘parental rights’ argument is in contrast to the ‘child rights’ argument that use of corporal punishment is a violation of children’s human rights to live a life free from violence both inside and outside the home,” researchers wrote.

Other arguments against banning corporal punishment outright are that different parents have different cultural and religious practices, and that a ban would be challenging to uphold and could waste police time.

Researchers highlighted New Zealand as an important comparison to Australia due to the close physical and cultural ties between the two neighbouring countries. New Zealand outlawed corporal punishment in 2007 following a government-funded positive parenting campaign which emphasized alternatives to corporal punishment.

The study pointed out New Zealand did not see an increase in problems such as higher delinquency rates among children, which was one of the concerns of those who opposed the outlawing of corporal punishment. There also was not a significant uptick in physical assaults on children following the legislative change, and surveys showed that attitudes towards corporal punishment shifted even faster after it was banned, with only 19 per cent of parents saying corporal punishment was okay in 2018 compared to 87 per cent in 1993.

The popularity of corporal punishment is fading fast in Canada as well.

A February survey of 1,000 Canadians conducted by Research Co. found just over half of respondents believe legislation allowing parents to use “reasonable force” on their children should be abolished.

Quebec respondents voiced the highest support for outlawing corporal punishment, at 61 per cent, and younger Canadians were also more likely to support outlawing it.

Only 30 per cent of respondents said they had never been physically disciplined as a child.

In a May 2022 release by the United Nations concerning Canada’s progress towards implementing the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Canadian representative to the committee stated that the question of repealing Section 43 was “controversial,” adding the 2004 Supreme Court ruling had set up guidelines by prohibiting “severe” corporal punishment and banning the use of physical punishment in schools.


Although the prevalence of corporal punishment in Australia is going down, it’s still a very real part of many families’ lives, the study noted.

Researchers referenced a study published in 2021 which found 61 per cent of Australian youth aged 16-24 had reported experiencing corporal punishment four or more times in childhood. It also found the attitudes towards corporal punishment have been shifting over time, with the younger respondents more likely to say it was unacceptable than the older respondents.

“Although emerging evidence suggests there is lessening support for corporal punishment in Australia, we do not need to wait for changes in attitudes to occur,” researchers wrote in the study.

They recommend Australia enact legal reform in each state to outlaw corporal punishment, increase access to parenting supports and education on alternatives to corporal punishment and create a public health educational campaign, among other steps.

“Whether taking an evidence-based approach (i.e., considering adverse impacts) or a child-rights perspective (i.e., asserting that children deserve the same right to be free from violence as afforded to adults), continuing to allow corporal punishment of children by their parents and carers is antithetical to the wellbeing of children in Australia,” researchers concluded.

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