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Why language matters: talking about ‘equal protection from physical assault’ rather than calling for a ‘smacking ban’

Last updated: 27 Jul 2023 Topics: News
A child nervously touches their fingers

From the NSPCC'S Library and Information Service specialists

If an adult hits another adult because they don’t approve of how they’re behaving, it’s described as physical assault. But when a parent takes the same action against their child, we’re more likely to describe it as ‘smacking’.

By reframing the language used to talk about this issue, we can better reflect the negative impact that physical punishment has on children. In doing so, we can also highlight the urgent need for a change in the law in England and Northern Ireland, where parents can still use the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ to justify physically punishing their child.

Highlighting the impact on children’s wellbeing

Using euphemistic terms like ‘smacking’ risks minimising the harm caused to children.1

Studies show that physical punishment can have harmful effects even if a child experiences it in the context of a warm, loving family background. It affects a child’s mental and emotional health, and is particularly associated with:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • an increase in aggression
  • an increase in antisocial behaviour.2

The psychological effects of physical punishment can extend into adulthood. Adults who had been physically punished as children had an increased risk of:

  • suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • moderate to heavy drinking
  • drug use.3

Current disparity between children’s and adults’ protection in law

In England and Northern Ireland the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ means that children are the only group of people who are not fully protected from physical assault.

Talking about ‘smacking’ masks the ongoing disparity in England and Northern Ireland between a child’s and adult’s protection in law from assault. Calling for a ‘ban’ does not recognise that removing the ‘reasonable punishment’ defence would not constitute a proactive ban or the creation of a new offence. Rather, it would ensure that the law of assault applies equally to children and adults.

Talking about ‘equal protection from physical assault’ underlines the fact that the child’s human right to protection against physical violence, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), is being infringed.4

Keeping the focus on the child

Talking about the need for equal protection from physical assault keeps the focus on the child’s need for protection, rather than the parent’s or carer’s desire to manage their child’s behaviour.

In fact, research shows that using physical punishment can lead to increased child behaviour problems over time.4 Families can get caught in a cycle: as a child misbehaves more often, parents rely on harsher forms of physical punishment – and the psychological effects of the punishment make the child’s behaviour even more problematic.5 

Changing language, changing attitudes

The NSPCC campaigns to give children equal protection from physical assault. We’re asking for the legal defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ to be removed, so that the physical punishment of children is not condoned in law anywhere in the UK.

There’s already been great progress. Children in Wales, Scotland and Jersey now have equal protection from physical assault.

Our hope is that by continuing to reframe the debate, similar changes will be made to the law in England and Northern Ireland.


Criminal Justice Act 1988 [Accessed 13/01/2023]
Heilmann, A., Kelly, Y. and Watt, R.G. (2015) Equally protected?: a review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children. London: NSPCC.
Afifi, T.O. et al. (2017) Spanking and adult mental health impairment: the case for the designation of spanking as an adverse childhood experience. Child Abuse and Neglect, 71: 24-31.
United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (2006) Forty second session, Geneva, 15 May – 2 June 2006, General Comment no.8. [Accessed 10/07/2023].
Heilmann, A. et al. (2021) Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies. The Lancet, 398(10297): 355-364.
Heilmann, A., Kelly, Y. and Watt, R.G. (2015) Equally protected?: a review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children. London: NSPCC.

Key points

  • Children deserve the same protection from assault as adults.
  • Using physical forms of punishment can cause long term harm to children.
  • Physical punishment is an ineffective means of managing children’s behaviour.
  • Calling for equal protection from physical assault rather than a 'ban on smacking’ keeps the debate focussed on the safety, wellbeing and protection of children.