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D. Smacking: orientations, situations and justifications


While the last section looked at parental views of how common physical chastisement is and at survey evidence of a range of actual parental behaviours, this section focuses specifically on how parents think and feel about smacking and its use. It examines general orientations towards smacking — asking whether those who support it do so whole-heartedly or with ambivalence — and the ways in which parents talk about, rationalise and explain its use in specific situations. In doing so, it also draws on survey evidence of typical ‘smacking situations’ and explores parental perceptions of the effectiveness and appropriateness of smacking for children of different ages. The themes covered in the sub-sections are:

  • general attitudes towards smacking
  • typical smacking situations
  • explanations and justifications: smacking to signal danger and smacking as a last resort
  • smacking and stress
  • perceived influences on likelihood of use
  • parental reactions to smacking
  • parenting in public
  • alternatives to smacking
  • age and appropriateness
  • perceptions of effectiveness
  • attitudes to non-parental physical chastisement

General attitudes towards smacking

As the following results from the survey indicate, although outright opposition to the use of smacking is relatively rare among parents, so too is a robust defence of it — articulated by only one parent in four. Most parents have an ambivalent attitude towards smacking — they recognise that it can have negative consequences and is best avoided, but feel that sometimes they or other parents are left with no alternative. This construction of smacking as a tactic of last resort is returned to below.

Figure D - 1 Attitude towards smacking by social class
Unweighted base=692, ABC1 n=372, C2DE=320

bar chart

Although the differences should not be over-emphasised, there is a social class dimension in attitudes here, with those in social groups ABC1 significantly less likely than those in C2DE to say that there is nothing wrong with using smacking to teach children right from wrong and more likely to say that one shouldn’t smack in any circumstances.

Across all social groups, however, the most striking aspect of these results is not that a majority of parents position themselves as broadly in favour of smacking but that of that group a clear majority do so in a slightly apologetic way. The interesting point here, and one that is returned to later in this section, is the complexity of parental attitudes.


In what circumstances or situations, then, do parents tend to smack and when do they feel it is appropriate or effective to do so — assuming that these do not always coincide? Again, it is instructive to look both at the way that parents talk about such issues (in the context of qualitative interviews) and the survey data on actual behaviours. We begin with the latter.

Reasons given for smacking/hitting

Parents who said they had smacked (or hit) their child in the past year were asked to think back to the last occasion this had happened and to say what the child had done (more than one reason could be given). The results are shown in Table D-2 below. The first is that there are clear variations in the reasons given by age of the child. The second is that smacking as punishment is more common than smacking as prevention — even among younger children. As we shall see below, this is not always the impression given in the qualitative discussions with parents.

The most common reason given for smacking a child under three was that "they had done something naughty" (39%) closely followed by "they had done/were about to do something dangerous" (36%). For children between three and 10, the most common reason was "they wouldn't stop doing something they'd been told not to do" (38% of 3-5 year olds and 32% of 6-10 year olds). This resonates with the construction by parents of smacking as being a ‘tactic of last resort’ — again explored below in relation to the qualitative discussions. Older children (11-15) were most likely to have been smacked or hit for being cheeky or answering back.

Table D - 1 Reasons why smacked or hit child on last occasion (% respondents)

Age of child



less than 3








They wouldn't stop doing something they'd been told not to do






They had done something naughty (e.g. thrown stones, hit another child)






They had been cheeky/answered you (or someone else) back






They wouldn’t do what they were told






They had done/were about to do something dangerous






They were having a tantrum






Something else had happened






Really can't remember







Parents were also asked where they were on the last occasion that they had smacked or hit their child. The results suggest that the use of physical chastisement is overwhelmingly confined to the home, with 9 out of 10 (90%) incidents taking place there. A further 5% of incidents took place at someone else’s home and hardly any in a public place or somewhere else (3% in each case). This is an important finding when read in conjunction with the material relating to perceptions of the impact that any ban might have — as we shall see later, parents tend to see it as unlikely to impact on their behaviour ‘behind closed doors’.

Explanations and justifications

While the survey provides a rough outline of the types of situations (and locations) in which parents are most likely to smack their children, the qualitative interviews add considerable depth to this picture. The specific forms of explanation and justification used, however, also tell us something about parental perceptions of the acceptability and appropriateness of smacking.

Smacking to signal danger

The situation mentioned most frequently in the qualitative interviews — which, as we have seen, may say as much about perceived acceptability as actual prevalence — was that of smacking to signal danger. In defending their own use of smacking or its use in general, parents often drew on situations such as the following.

*Well, I’ve got an under 3, and the things that he has got his hand smacked for, are for dangerous things. You know, like the radiator. He kept going back and forward to it and we said, no you can’t touch it, you can’t touch that, you can’t touch that, it’s too hot and you go on like that for about 20 times, and you just had to smack him on his hand and say, no more, and it does stop him from going there. So, if you weren’t able to do that. I mean, I suppose maybe some of them listen to you eventually and don’t go and touch it. Maybe there would be an accident happened before. I’m not saying it’s always good to smack their little fingers, but.. It has stopped him from being burnt. Other people I’ve spoken to have done the same thing. You know, a little tap on the fingers doesn’t do them any harm
Peer group, Dundee, Females, ABC1

It is not immediately clear why smacking appears to parents to be such an appropriate response in this sort of situation. However, it may be seen as an effective means of conveying the potential seriousness of the child’s behaviour and there is also an intuitive appeal in smacking the hand that is reaching for danger.

* If it’s something that could be really dangerous, like trying to pull something off the cooker when it’s hot, or something like that. A danger thing. They need to realise that, you just can’t do that. Something very serious.
Depth interview, Male, Edinburgh, C2DE

*Last year L ran right on the road in front of a car so he got a smack on the bottom for that and he knew because he is not used to getting smacked, he knew he had done something terrible.
Focus group, Glasgow, Males, C2DE

It is also, of course, often an instinctive ‘panic’ reaction on the part of parents, involving little or no deliberation, which raises interesting questions about the potential for changing behaviour.

* I think sometimes you just panic. I remember with R, he got up to the toilet. And I remember him sitting on the windowsill at the open window. And I remember panicking. And I grabbed him and said ... "Don't ever do that again". I think you just get such a fright yourself, it's just your reaction. You don't even think about it. You just do it. He could've fell out of the window and killed himself. And I just grabbed him down and smacked him and said ... "Don't ever do that again.". He never did actually!
Peer group, Edinburgh, Females, C2DE

* I think she had about two or three smacks ever. One time it was ... I don't know if it was for my benefit or for hers, she got the smack ... but I got such a fright. I grabbed her and smacked automatically. * Interviewer: That was when she ran across the road?
* Yes. She'd actually disappeared. And legged it after the dog. And I'd chased her half way through the scheme. She was about 4 at that time. And I got such a fright by the time I caught her, I just ... But I don't know if it was to make me feel good. Or to punish her. And after that, I thought I'm not doing that again.
Focus group, Inverness, Females, C2DE

‘Nobody wants to smack their children’: the construction of smacking as a tactic of ‘last resort’

Insofar as it tends to be a response to a sudden and unforeseen situation, smacking to signal danger differs significantly from many other situations in which parents tend to smack. Although sometimes parents would talk about the seriousness of a child’s behaviour (e.g. throwing stones at cars), more commonly, they would describe its persistence and the failure of other disciplinary strategies. It was extremely rare for parents to defend smacking in positive terms: much more commonly, they described it in terms of a tactic of ‘last resort’. While recognising the limitations of smacking as a disciplinary tactic (especially if it is overused) and even its potentially harmful effects, many parents continue to argue that children sometimes reach a point where they simply ‘need a smack’.

*Well, we’ll start off with, "Excuse me. Don’t do that. Excuse me. Don’t do that, because you’ll knock that over. Excuse me. Are you deaf?

Excuse me. Do you hear me? Do you hear me?" "Yeah, I do hear you". "What did mummy say"? "Not to touch it". "OK, that’s fine", and then it’ll maybe happen again, and then. Well, before they smash something or whatever, and then. I often find that, we’ll work up to that, and then they get their bum smacked or whatever, and then it’s just as good as gold. It’s like it’s just built up to a point, and then they’re fine. But, I really think there is a place for smacking.
Peer group, Dundee, Females, ABC1

* So in principle. I agree with it. I would love not to smack. Because I think you're actually just teaching them to hit. Do you know what I mean? But I have actually smacked my child. I can't deny that. But I try not to. It's usually a last resort.
* Yes. I think everyone in this room has probably smacked. They push you too far sometimes. You just try and be reasonable and it doesn't work.

* Nobody wants to smack their children. That's the thing. The majority of people aren't wanting to do it. It is the last resort. And it is when you've come to the end of your tether. It's really stressful. It is stressful.
Peer group, Edinburgh, Females, C2DE

Despite talk about ‘needs’ - which may tell us more about parents’ need to offer moral accounts of parenting - the important point to appreciate here is that, with a handful of possible exceptions, most parents who smack do not do so out of a positive conviction that the practice is ‘for the good of the child’ but out of a sense that they have run out of other options. Interestingly, then, smacking — which embodies parental power and control — is often constructed by parents as happening in those moments in which they feel least powerful.

‘You lose it sometimes’: smacking and stress

It is also clear that the reassertion of parental control is often far from being controlled and is instead emotionally charged. We saw in Section B that the task of parenting in general needs to be understood within the context of competing and increasing pressures on parents. What are the implications of this for the way in which issues of discipline and chastisement are handled? While the discussion so far has centred on the child’s behaviour, several of those interviewed as part of the qualitative research were willing to admit that other stresses and pressures also influence their use of smacking and other disciplinary techniques — in other words, it’s not just what the child does but how the parent is feeling.

*A lot comes from how you feel at the end of the day, if you are really tired sometimes you get wound up with them and so maybe do go over the top with their punishments.
Focus group, Glasgow, Males, C2DE

*I think it’s right what you said as well, if you are having a particularly lousy day, a lot is to do with how you are feeling at the time.
Peer group, Glasgow, Mixed, ABC1

* This is terrible but when I'm stressed. You know what I mean ... you snap easier. And that's not my son's fault. So I try not to. But I have.
Peer group, Edinburgh, Females, C2DE

* You know, if I'm really wound up, say I've had a bad, like I did yesterday, it was a terrible, terrible day I had yesterday, and the kids are all at me, and I just lost the plot. I really lost the plot. And then I feel terrible after it and I says, I shouldn't have done that, but it's got to be done, or else the kids will walk all over the top of you, definitely.
Depth interview, Glasgow, Female (single parent), C2DE

Perceived influences on likelihood to use smacking

As part of the survey exercise, those parents who had ever smacked were asked about situations in which they might be more likely to smack. These included both descriptions of the child’s behaviour and of the pressures on the parent. The results are shown in Table D-2 below.

Table D - 2 Whether parents think themselves more likely to smack in different situations


Much more likely to smack

A bit more likely to smack

No more likely to smack

When he/she has been told off but still carries on misbehaving




When he/she has been aggressive or violent




When you feel you’ve lost control of him/her




When you’ve been worried or scared about him/her




When you’ve had a long, tiring day




When you feel things are getting on top of you




When you’re very busy or pushed for time




Unweighted base=485

The questions about the ‘last occasion’ are also interesting in this respect. When parents were asked how they were feeling immediately before they had last used some form of physical chastisement, they were most likely to reply that they were feeling ‘angry or frustrated’ (48%), ‘stressed or hassled’ (25%), ‘tired’ (16%) or ‘worried about something’ (6%). A quarter (24%) said that they felt none of those things and 10% that they did not know or could not remember.

‘I’ve never smacked them and not regretted it’: parental reactions to smacking

On a related theme, it is worth noting that, despite feeling that their children sometimes ‘need a smack’, parents often feel guilty or upset at having actually smacked them. There was some suggestion from the qualitative interviews that such feelings were especially strong among mothers — though this may reflect differences in the way that males and females tend to talk about the issues and was not reflected in the survey results.

* I could put my hand on my heart and say, I’ve never smacked them, and not regretted it after. I’ve always felt that I’ve failed, if I’ve smacked, right, because. Not because I’ve lost it. Well, probably because I have lost it, and that’s why I’ve smacked, you know what I mean, but it’s like. […] Not so much now, because they’re older, and you don’t need to but, I think to myself, well I maybe should have done that different, or maybe I should have handled that different. You know what I mean.

*Do you not think it’s part of being a mum? You like beating yourself up about everything you do though?
Peer group, Dundee, Females, ABC1

* It makes me feel really guilty. I'm quite a big lad eh? I've got quite a big pair of hands, so if I was to smack them, I would knock them next door so I'm always saying to my wife to do it but she never does! I'm always wary of smacking them - I'm not saying I've never smacked them, I think I've smacked them about three times but every time I do it, I feel guilty. You get to a point though that you just break.
Peer group, Borders, Mixed, C2DE

Overall, 53% of parents said that they felt guilty or sorry after using physical chastisement on the last occasion they had done so. Around a third (34%) said they felt annoyed at the child ‘for making me have to smack them’. Just 10% said that they felt much the same after smacking as before, 7% said they felt none of these things and 7% did not know or could not remember. Only a very small number (2%) said they felt better.

‘Smacking for other people’: parenting in public

We noted earlier that parents are probably increasingly reflexive about and preoccupied with their own parenting skills and that they feel scrutinised by others, especially when dealing with issues of discipline in public places. Often this acts to inhibit the use of smacking — many of those interviewed indicated that they would be reluctant to smack their child because of concern that other people would disapprove or even intervene.

*Interviewer: Is there a difference between how you manage things in the house, and how you manage things in public, with the boys?
*Yes, obviously. I mean, I’m not going to smack them in public.
* Interviewer: You wouldn’t?
* Interviewer: Why not?
*Again, it’s not socially accepted. Somebody would maybe intervene, and maybe assault you.
Depth interview, Edinburgh, Male, C2DE

On other occasions, however, as in the following examples, a sense of external scrutiny may encourage the use of smacking. Again, the themes of both accountability and anxiety are evident here.

*I’ve seen me smacking one or other of my children, for other people. You think, folk are looking at us, and they think that I’m not disciplining them.
Peer group, Dundee, Females, ABC1

* My wee boy doesn't take that many tantrums, but people look at me like I'm a bad mother, because my child's taking a tantrum. He wants something and I'm not giving him it. And he'll be lying on the floor and I just ignore him. Because I think to respond to it, is just ...
*Interviewer: So who are these people who look at you?
* Older people.
* Old ladies. You hear them saying something like that bairn should be smacked.
* Tut tutting, shaking the head.
Peer group, Edinburgh, Females, C2DE

We return to this theme below in relation to the proposed legislation. For the time being, it may be sufficient to make the point that parents often already feel judged and scrutinised when dealing with their children’s difficult behaviour in public places. The proposed legislation, as we shall see, has the potential to contribute to that feeling.

Alternatives to smacking

It was indicated earlier that smacking was generally seen as a tactic of last resort. Among the more common alternative strategies discussed by parents were distraction (especially for very young children), the rewarding of good behaviour, reasoning, withdrawal of treats or ‘grounding’.

There was also discussion of alternative forms of physical chastisement, which might be less visible, especially in public.

*I remember my mum used to do it to my younger brothers and that. And she used to walk along and nip their hands. Or nip their finger. She used to say "I'm amazed that my son has got the power of his right hand", because she used to squeeze it that hard!
Focus group, Edinburgh, Females, ABC1

There was also discussion about the potential harmful consequences of some non-physical responses, such as a parent threatening to leave or to send the child away.

* I'm in charge of a bad children's home in _____ and one day I was in ____ and the mobile phone goes off and it was an emergency at the bad children's home. We've always said "you're going to the bad boys

home" but I turned round and the kids are screaming their heads off thinking "this is it, I'm going to the bad boys home". It does actually make you aware of what you're saying to them. You would have no idea what's going on in their wee minds because you threatened them in the past about something and their minds are working overtime.
Peer group

Several participants contrasted the ‘short, sharp’ character of a smack with the potential for lasting psychological damage from some non-physical punishment.

* I would rather skelp a bairn because the way some folk speak to their bairns, to me it's worse than giving a smack. A smack looks worse but the way some folk speak to their bairns, it's awful.
Peer group, Borders, Mixed, C2DE

*I think sometimes like the mental… The mental thing that you do to attack could be worse than smacking them.
Peer group, Dundee, Females, ABC1

Age and appropriateness

Among those who felt that smacking was a justifiable method of disciplining children (i.e. 87% of the parents interviewed9), there was a range of opinion about the appropriateness of its use for children of different ages. In general, though, there was relatively little support for smacking either very young or older children. Indeed, most people saw smacking as a useful and appropriate strategy only within a relatively narrow age band.

When those who thought smacking was a justifiable method were asked whether there was an age below which children should not be smacked, four out of five (80%) said there was. Of these, 17% thought the age below which one should not smack a child was one year, 29% thought the age was 2 and 23% thought the age was 3. Almost all of the remainder offered responses between 4 and 8 years; 14% said they did not know.

A smaller, though still sizeable, proportion (66% of the 600 respondents who thought smacking was justifiable) thought that one should not smack a child above a certain age. Although there was considerable variation in views of what that age should be, around three-quarters (76%) of those who thought one should not smack a child above a certain age suggested 8 or above.

What was the logic behind these age-based cut-off points? In relation to younger children, parents tended to argue that there was little point in smacking a child, as he or she would not be capable of understanding, and that there would be little need — except perhaps to signal danger.

Above a certain age (which varied, from 4-5 up to 8-9), smacking was also widely seen an inappropriate, for a variety of reasons. First, the child should be capable of reasoning and, therefore, alternative approaches should be possible. Secondly, the child would be capable of understanding the meaning of violence — and would, therefore, interpret a smack very differently. Finally, some parents argued that to smack an older child would be embarrassing or humiliating.

* Maybe they should make a law that you're not allowed to smack at the wrong age because the age that a little smack, and it's a little smack that I'm talking about, is useful is maybe 2-4 years old. And then once they're past that age, that's when you should start being able to speak to them because they can understand.
Peer group, Borders, Mixed, C2DE

* I can't remember (being smacked). I think it's because you normally smack a child between the ages of three and five. Because under three they're too young. And when they get to five or six, they can understand when you give them a row. So you stop smacking then. So if you're getting smacked in between those ages, you're going to forget when you're older. Because you can't remember anything.
Peer group, Edinburgh, Females, C2DE

*Younger kids benefit from a smack as they get older deprivation of something they like works better
Peer group, Glasgow, Mixed, ABC1

By far the most common reason given in the survey for why children under a certain age should not be smacked was that the child would not understand - four out of five respondents who thought there was an age below which one should not smack gave this as a reason. Other reasons cited were that other methods would work better (15%), that it might harm the child (14%) and that it would not work (9%).

Just over half (54%) of the parents who felt that children above a certain age should not be smacked said this was because one should be able to reason with them/talk to them by that age. Over a third (39%) indicated that they should know right from wrong by that age, and a quarter (23%) that smacking would not work. A number of parents also suggested that it would make things worse (20%) or that it would embarrass/humiliate the child (17%).

In the context of the legislation, the finding that most parents see smacking as inappropriate for children of particular ages is important. However, two points need to be borne in mind. First, they are almost as likely to see it as inappropriate for older as younger children. Secondly, agreement that children of a particular age should not be smacked is not the same as saying that it should be illegal.

Perceptions of effectiveness

Most parents may smack their children, at least occasionally, but how effective do they think it is? Parents were asked to say how effective they felt smacking or hitting their child was on the last occasion they had done it, both in stopping the behaviour at the time and preventing similar behaviour later on. The results suggest that a majority of parents feel that smacking does work, especially in the short-term. A larger proportion thought smacking was either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all’ effective in preventing similar behaviour — though a majority still thought it ‘very’ or ‘fairly effective’ in doing so.

Again, there were some interesting variations by age of child as detailed in the tables overleaf.

Attitudes towards non-parental physical chastisement

Although many parents argue that sometimes children simply ‘need a smack’, either because of the seriousness or the persistence of their behaviour, almost all are opposed to the idea of anyone else administering that sanction. For example, even among those parents who are most strongly committed to the use of smacking (i.e. who see nothing wrong with ‘using smacking to teach children right from wrong’), 69% say they would definitely not allow another parent they know well to smack their child, 80% that they would not allow a babysitter to do so, and 78% a childminder or other carer. Only a third (36%) of this group, however, would not allow a grandparent to smack their child.

This can be seen as consistent with parents’ views, noted earlier in the report, that they should generally make decisions about their children’s discipline, but also with the idea that close family are the most likely source of help or support in relation to behavioural or discipline problems.

Figure D - 2 Perceived effectiveness of smacking at the time (%)
Unweighted base=359, under 3 n=63, 3 to 5 n=91, 6 to 10 n=128, 11 to 15 n=77

bar chart

Figure D - 3 Perceived effectiveness of smacking later on (%)
Unweighted base=359, under 3 n=63, 3 to 5 n=91, 6 to 10 n=128, 11 to 15 n=77

bar chart

Key points

  • Although outright opposition to the use of smacking is relatively rare, so too is a robust defence of it. Most parents have an ambivalent attitude towards it — while recognising that it can have negative consequences and is best avoided, they argue that they or other parents are sometimes left with no alternative.
  • There is a social class dimension here, with ‘principled’ opposition to smacking more common among ABC1 parents and support for it more common among C2DE parents.
  • In terms of typical ‘smacking situations’, there is a slight disjunction between the survey data and the qualitative interviews. In the latter, parents tended to refer most frequently to situations in which smacking is used to signal danger — perhaps because this is seen as more socially acceptable. The survey data, on the other hand, suggests that it is more commonly used as a straightforward punishment than to send a message of this kind.
  • The other key theme in parental talk about smacking is its construction as a tactic of ‘last resort’. In this context, it is usually a response to the persistence rather than the seriousness of children’s behaviour, and is clearly often bound up with situational factors relating to parental stress.
  • The survey data reveal physical chastisement to be overwhelmingly private in character, almost always taking place within the home — a finding with obvious relevance for questions of legislative enforcement.
  • The act of smacking is often immediate and emotionally charged — rather than a deliberate and distanced application of a sanction — and often leaves parents with feelings of guilt. Again, this suggests that parental attitudes are more complex than might usually be supposed.
  • On a related note, eight out of ten parents believe that children of a particular age should not be smacked. Two points should be noted here: first, although it was widely held that very young children should not be smacked, there was also significant support for the idea that children above a certain age should not be smacked; secondly, a belief that children of a certain age should not be smacked is not the same as saying that it should be illegal to do so.
  • A majority of parents who smack tend to see it as either ‘very’ or ‘fairly’ effective both in stopping the behaviour at the time and in preventing similar behaviour later on. There is, however, slightly more scepticism about its longer-term effectiveness.

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