The Swedish Ban on Corporal Punishment:
Its History and Effects

Joan E. Durrant, Ph.D.

From Family Violence Against Children: A Challenge for Society, Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin, New York, 1996. (pp.19-25)

1 Introduction1

For 5 years, from 1979-1984, Sweden was unique in the industrialized world for having passed the first explicit ban on corporal punishment. To many of us, particularly those of us living in North America, this appears to have been a radical and, to some, intrusive legal development. However, from the Swedish perspective, the law was the logical conclusion of an evolutionary process that unfolded over a period of decades.

The present chapter will provide an outline of this development followed by an evaluation of the effects of the law. First it is important to note that Swedish society as a whole has undergone an evolution over the past century that has produced an increasingly collective and egalitarian social context in which such legal changes have taken place. Promotion of children's physical and mental health has become a cornerstone of family policy, as reflected in Sweden's well-developed child care system, parental leave and sickness insurance provisions, and health care system. Moreover, the Swedish state has increasingly moved into what has traditionally been considered to be the private sphere with the support of the majority of its citizens.

2 History of the Swedish Law

2.1 Early Attempts to Reduce Corporal Punishment, 1920s - 1940s

One hundred years ago, corporal punishment was common in Sweden and many children experienced severe beatings (Sverne, 1992). But by 1928, there was sufficient concern about this situation that the Education Act was amended to forbid corporal punishment in the gymnasiums (secondary schools). Sweden was one of the first countries to implement such a measure. Its significance is made clear when one notes that corporal punishment is still legally sanctioned in Canadian schools more than half a century later.

The success of this early measure, together with continuing concern about the level of violence permitted toward children in the home, led to a change in the Parenthood and Guardianship Code (a civil code governing family law) in 1949. In an attempt to reduce severe beatings, the word "punish" was replaced by "reprimand" in the section defining permissible parental behavior. The legal defense for corporal punishment remained in place, however, in both the Parents' Code and the Penal Code.

2.2 Increasingly Explicit Legislative Changes, 1950s and 1960s

The inadequacy of changing the wording of the corporal punishment defense became apparent throughout the 1950s. Parental violence was continuing to occur, and it was believed that maintaining the defense in the legal codes was contributing to this problem by providing an explicit sanctioning of corporal punishment. In 1957, the section permitting parents to use force in reprimanding their children was completely removed from the Penal Code. The intent of this change was to provide children with the same protection from assault that adults receive and to clarify the grounds for criminal prosecution of parents who abused their children. Parents' rights to use corporal punishment had still not been eliminated completely, however, as the Parents' Code still contained a paragraph permitting this practice. This situation allowed parents to use mild forms of physical discipline that would not constitute assault: under the Penal Code. The inconsistency of these two sets of laws was eliminated in 1966, when the parental right to use corporal punishment was removed from the Parents' Code.

At the same time that laws permitting corporal punishment in the home were being repealed, so were those allowing this form of discipline to take place in other child care settings. In 1959, an "experiment" was carried out in the welfare schools; the teachers were asked to refrain from using corporal punishment for 1 year, after which they could evaluate the success of this approach. While there was some initial resistance to this idea and some debate in the media, during the course of that year, a change took place in the Headmasters' beliefs such that they no longer felt that beating was necessary and the media debate diminished considerably (Linde, 1978). As a result, 1960 witnessed the abolition of corporal punishment in the Statutes for Child Care Institutions and Reformatory Schools. It was expected that now parents and other caregivers would cease to use physical force.

By this time, interest had been generated in assessing the effect of these legislative changes on public support for corporal punishment. One of the two largest public opinion polling organizations in Sweden carried out a series of national surveys through the late 1960s and early 1970s. Respondents were asked in each survey whether they thought that corporal punishment was sometimes necessary. Between 1965 and 1968, the percentage who thought that it was necessary declined from 53% to 42% (SIFO, 1981). By 1971, this percentage had declined even further to 35% (SIFO, 1981). Also, between 1965 and 1971, the proportion of Swedes who believed that children should be brought up without the use of corporal punishment increased from 35% to 60% (SIFO, 1981)

2.3 The 1970s and the Children's Rights Commission

It is evident that changes in public attitudes changed quite substantially following modifications to the law regarding corporal punishment. But these changes appear to reflect changes in social norms on a broad basis more than simply an increased awareness of the legal status of corporal punishment. The evidence for this notion comes from a poll conducted in 1971, which demonstrated that 60% of the population did not know that corporal punishment was no longer legally defensible. As a result, a public education campaign was launched in an effort to increase awareness of the fact that physical force was no longer legally sanctioned.

Soon thereafter, in 1975, a 3-year-old girl was badly beaten by her father and was taken to hospital with bruises over her entire body. Despite the girl's injuries, the court acquitted her father, stating that he had not exceeded his right to chastise his daughter (Sverne, 1984). This event demonstrated, as Peter Newell (1989) has argued, that removal of the criminal defense does not ensure that children will be treated equally to adults before the law. In 1977, soon after this father was acquitted, a large exhibition on child abuse was held in Stockholm and attended by 60,000 people (Linde, 1978). A large number of those attending the exhibition signed a petition that called for more stringent laws on the use of physical force against children (Linde, 1994). That same year, the Minister of Justice appointed a Commission on Children's Rights to review the Parenthood and Guardianship Code and formulate recommendations for modifying it to improve children's welfare.

The Commission concluded that, although the right of parents and custodians to use corporal punishment had been removed from both the Penal Code and the Parents' Code, it had not been replaced with clear guidelines for parents' or legal authorities' decision-making. Therefore, it was not clear whether corporal punishment was not approved but permitted, or whether it was actually forbidden. The Commission was unanimous in its support for a proposal to include a paragraph in the Parents' Code that explicitly banned the use of corporal punishment by parents. In 1978, this proposal underwent a "remiss procedure" during which it was submitted to 30 authorities for review and response. Twenty-eight of the 30 authorities supported the proposed ban. In 1979, the proposal was put to a vote in Parliament. There was virtually no opposition; the proposal was supported by all parties and the final vote was 259 in favor and 6 against (Sverne, 1994). The relevant paragraph now contained in the Parents' Code reads:

"Children are entitled to care, security, and a good upbringing. Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to physical punishment or other injurious or humiliating treatment."
The goal of the ban was to alter public attitudes and acknowledge children's rights as autonomous individuals, not to criminalize parents (Sverne, 1994). As the legal amendment was made to the Parents' Code, it carries no penalties. Punishment for infraction of the law remains within the arena of the Penal Code and is administered only in cases that meet the criteria of assault. The law was intended as a guideline for parents to follow and as a means of changing attitudes toward the use of force in childrearing.

The absence of sanctions for parental transgressions provides increased opportunities for early intervention into troubled families. Generally, parents are helped through support and education, rather than through prosecution. The law ensures the right of refusal to prosecute trivial acts even if they are punishable under the Penal Code, and the definition of corporal punishment does not include physical force or restraint used to prevent harm to the child or to others (Newell, 1989). The law does, however, forbid not only corporal punishment but mentally humiliating treatment as well - for example, ridiculing, frightening, threatening, or locking up a child. Therefore, the concern that mental abuse would increase in the face of decreased physical punishment was addressed by the legislation.

2.4 Supportive Measures, 1979 to Present

As part of its proposal, the Commission strongly recommended that a public education campaign accompany the passage of the new law. A massive campaign was funded by the Department of Justice. The ban was well-publicized by the media, but more importantly, a 16-page color pamphlet explaining the reason for the law and providing alternatives to corporal punishment was given to every household with a young child. These pamphlets were also distributed through medical offices and child care centres and translated into all immigrant languages. This was the most expensive pamphlet distribution ever carried out by the Ministry of Justice (Ziegert, 1983). Further, for 2 months, information about the law was printed on milk cartons, to ensure that it was present at family mealtimes when parents and children could discuss the issue together. As a result of this campaign, by 1981, a total of 99% of Swedes were familiar with the law, a level of knowledge unmatched "in any other study on knowledge about law in any other industrialized society" (Ziegert, 1983).

Today, education about the law continues. As the Commission's report was the shortest printed official report in Sweden's history, it is used in school to teach children how a law is created. The law is also discussed in parent education classes, which are available to all expectant parents, and in well-baby clinics (child health care centres), which are used by virtually 100% of the population. The legislation also appears in the 9th-grade lesson plan on Child Development. In compulsory English-language classes, a vocabulary-building exercise is based upon a conversation between an English couple who support corporal punishment and a third person who opposes it (Newell, 1989). Such measures provide information about the law directly to children and extend its preventive function.

3 Effects of the Law

The effects of the law upon behavior are difficult to demonstrate, as no large-scale longitudinal studies have been conducted. There is evidence from two qualitative studies that although Swedish parents tended to be rather permissive in the early 1980s, this has changed and they now are generally quite skilled in using democratic childrearing methods (Haeuser, 1988, 1990). Further, rates of child abuse appear to have declined; the number of referrals to St. Göan's Hospital in Stockholm, which receives all child maltreatment cases, had declined by 1989 to one-sixth of the 1970 rate (Haeuser, 1988). By the mid-1980s, Swedish rates of physical discipline and child abuse were half those found in the U.S. (Gelles & Edfeldt, 1986; Haeuser, 1988), and the Swedish rate of child death due to abuse was less than one-third the American rate (Gregersen & Vesterby, 1984).

As the primary purpose of the law was to alter public attitudes, this is an important variable to examine, and longitudinal data are available to permit such an analysis. It will be recalled that by 1971, the proportion of Swedes who thought that corporal punishment was sometimes necessary in childrearing had declined to 35%. By 1981, two years after the law a passage, this proportion had decreased to 26%(SIFO, 1981). In 1994, a national survey was commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs and carried out by Statistics Sweden. This study revealed that only 11% of Swedes now support the use of corporal punishment in childrearing (Lundgren, 1994). (For a more detailed description of this study's findings, see Edfeldt & Durrant, this volume.) Therefore, over the course of three decades, public attitudes have undergone a major shift; whereas a majority of Swedes believed in the necessity of corporal punishment in 1965, only a small minority support its use today.

The purpose of the law was to make it clear to Swedish citizens that hitting children is not permitted. It was also intended to educate parents about the importance of giving their children good care. It removed what could be construed as a silent sanction of corporal punishment and is the culmination of an evolutionary process that saw Swedish society increasingly reject corporal punishment as a means of educating children and increasingly recognize the rights of children as individuals. It was the educational component of the law that was seen as most important, rather than the potential for legal penalties.

4 Conclusion

The Swedish corporal punishment law has been very effective in shaping a social consensus regarding the rejection of corporal punishment in childrearing. However, the law's implementation and the attitude shift that accompanied it cannot be viewed in isolation from the social context in which it developed. The social developments that led up to its implementation include:

  1. The growth of a strong children's rights movement, represented by two prominent and influential organizations, Rädda Barnen (Swedish Save the Children) and Barnens Rätt i Samhallet (Children's Rights in Society). These organizations have contributed to a high degree of public recognition of children's status as persons.
  2. A collectivist orientation that places children's welfare at the centre of social policy formulation. This orientation is manifested in Sweden's highly developed and heavily subsidized day care system, generous parental leaves, parental sickness insurance, children's dental insurance, and a broad array of welfare measures that have reduced the child poverty rate to less than 2% (Smeeding, 1992).
  3. A focus on preparation for parenthood. For example, at all levels of education, students are educated about responsible parenthood. Baby-care courses include a parent training component, prenatal classes are accessible to all expectant parents, and support groups for parents of young children are available at community health centers. All such services are provided free of charge.
Together with the nonpunitive nature of the corporal punishment law, these measures increase the likelihood that parents who find themselves relying on physical force to raise their children will seek assistance and/or be identified early in the cycle that often leads to abuse. This coherent preventive approach has resulted in broad public support for the abolition of corporal punishment and commitment to the eradication of child abuse.

Since Sweden passed its law, four other countries have done the same--Finland (1984), Denmark (1986), Norway (1987), and Austria (1989).* In 1985, the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers recommended that member states review their legislation on corporal punishment in order to limit or prohibit it, even if violation does not necessarily entail a criminal penalty. The Swedish experience can be very instructive in this regard, because it provides evidence for the effectiveness of such measures in altering societal attitudes toward the use of physical force in childrearing.

1 Much of the information obtained in this chapter was obtained during a research visit to Sweden supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council. The author would like to thank Gunborg Anderson, Gunilla Bodin, Åke Edfeld, Simone Ek, Anette Larsson, Gunnel Linde, Tor Sverne, Karin Lundin, Peter Newell, Anika Oster, and Gun-Marie Pettersson for their valuable contributions.

Editor's Note
* Cyprus and Italy have now also banned physical punishment of children.

Burns, N. (1992): Legislative and attitudinal comparison of western counties on corporal punishment. Paper presented at the Meeting of the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect. Chicago.

Gelles, R. J. & Edfeldt, A. W. (1986): Violence toward children in the United States and Sweden. Child Abuse & Neglect, 1O, 501-510

Gregersen, M & Vesterby, A. (1984): Child abuse and neglect in Denmark: Medico-legal aspects. Child Abuse & Neglect, 8, 83-91.

Haeuser, A. A. (1988): Reducing violence towards U.S. children: Transferring positive innovations from Sweden. Unpublished manuscript. University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Haeuser, A. A. (1990): Banning parental use of physical punishment: Success in Sweden. Paper presented at the Eighth International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect, Hamburg.

Linde, G. (1978): Corporal punishment. Paper presented to the Second International Congress on Child Abuse and Neglect, London.

Linde, G. (1994): Personal communication. Stockholm.

Lundgren, L. (1994). Allmänhetens Inställning till Olika Former av Barnuppfostran [Public attitudes toward different forms of childrearing]. Stockholm.

Newell, P. (1989): Children are people too: The case against physical punishment. London.

Smeeding, T.M. (1992): Why the US antipoverty system doesn't work very well. Challenge, 35, 30-35.

Sverne, T. (1984): Untitled unpublished manuscript.

Sverne, T. (1992): The Swedish ban on physical punishment. Paper presented at the Seminar on Ending Physical Punishment of European Children, London.

Sverne, T. (1994): Personal communication. February 4, Stockholm.

SIFO [Swedish Opinion Research Institute] (1981). Aga och Barnmisshandel [Spanking and child abuse]. Unpublished report.

Ziegert, K. A. (1983): The Swedish prohibition of corporal punishment: A preliminary report. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 45, 917-926.

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