Opinion: Support, not punish

Wales is currently proposing to make the defence of reasonable punishment towards children a thing of the past. Early years practitioners have an important role to play in advising parents who may be confused or anxious about the change.

Children should be able to grow up without fear of physical punishment from the people who love them most, writes Kate Fallon (pictured). Wales is currently proposing to make the defence of reasonable punishment towards children a thing of the past. If passed by the National Assembly for Wales and it becomes law, parents and other adults acting in a parental capacity will no longer be able to legally physically punish children in Wales. This should go some way to helping all children and their parents to develop positive relationships which will be beneficial for their mental health and well-being.

Associated with aggression

The Association of Educational Psychologists members have long believed the physical punishment of children is wrong (Local Authorities employed additional educational psychologists to help schools back in 1987 when corporal punishment in state schools was abolished by law), and all the work they do with parents around behaviour is based on non-physical means of teaching, support and management. I wholeheartedly welcome the proposed legislation in Wales.

Physical punishment can be harmful to children's overall development and to the relationships between children and their parents. It isn't effective as a strategy for helping children to learn right from wrong or how best to behave towards others – in fact, it models inappropriate behaviour.

As professionals, we want to support the overall healthy development of children, promote better protection for them and encourage positive, healthy relationships in families. We want parents to feel confident about bringing up their children without resorting to physical punishment.

In terms of evidence, there is a very good report which was published in Scotland last year (2015) entitled ‘Equally Protected? A review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children’. This reviewed many pieces of research and concluded very strongly that physical punishment is associated with increased aggression and anti-social behaviour, both within childhood and later in adulthood. It affects children's emotional and mental health and can have a negative impact on the quality of family relationships.

Most parents already bring up their children quite successfully without using physical punishment. They are careful to try to understand the development of their children and keep them safe within environments where loving adults can demonstrate ‘good’ behaviour.

Young (and some older) children often struggle to be able to communicate the emotions they are feeling and this is manifested within their behaviour – the belief that ‘all behaviour is communication’ is very helpful because in trying to understand why a child may be behaving in a particular way can lead parents to develop the best means of teaching and supporting their children how to behave in certain situations in the future.

Meeting parents' needs

Across Wales, many educational psychologists work with parents and early years settings in developing their skills and knowledge around child development and management. Sometimes this is done on a very individualised and specific basis according to the needs of individual children and their families. As professionals working with young children, we already know physical punishment can be harmful for children and it cannot be used within any early years settings.

There will of course be challenges to face if the new law is passed. Some of us may find parents are confused and anxious about how best to bring up their children if they have used smacking in the past. As we prepare for the introduction of this landmark legislation, we should be encouraging parents and early years workers to contact their local educational psychology service to ask for help and discuss what would be most helpful and appropriate for them.

Useful resources

  • ‘Equally Protected? A review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children’: bit.ly/2rd9O1h

  • Association of Educational Psychologists: aep.org.uk

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