SPANKING - Questions and answers about disciplinary violence
Olivier Maurel


Northern Europe

The situation in northern Europe is one of sharp contrasts, as this region has seven countries which have banned domestic corporal punishment along with two where, on the contrary, the tradition of corporal punishment is very resistant: Ireland and Great Britain. In Ireland, violence towards children is recognized as a real social problem. 92% of 304 mothers questioned by Irish researchers stated that they had resorted to spanking (2.9% among them doing so often or very often), as well as 87% of the 67 fathers responding (7.5% often or very often). It is among the working class that use of corporal punishment is most frequent. Is it any surprise that terrorism has raged so savagely in Ireland? Here is how Frank McCourt, in Angela's Ashes1 recalls the schoolmasters who shaped the generation of Catholic and Protestant terrorists:

There are seven masters in Leamy's National School and they all have leather straps, canes, blackthorn sticks. They hit you with the sticks on the shoulders, the back, the legs, and, especially, the hands . . . They hit you if you don't know why God made the world, if you don't know the patron saint of Limerick, if you can't recite the Apostle's Creed, if you can't add nineteen to forty-seven . . .
In schools and orphanages maintained in Dublin by religious orders, children were beaten with chair rungs and rosaries, or tied up and hung from door frames. The Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy (as in pity!), who had committed such violent acts up until the 1960's, publicly asked forgiveness from its victims in May of 2004.

Great Britain, for its part, spread the motto "Spare the rod and spoil the child" throughout every nation that fell under its dominion. A law dating back to 1860 officially gives parents authority to use corporal punishment in raising children. And in the schools, the practice was so well applied that a young Winston Churchill's parents took him out of his school on account of the brutal corporal punishment to which he was subjected there. Decades later he would write: "How I hated this school, and what a life of anxiety I lived there for more than two years." 

Things are nonetheless beginning to gradually change: in March 1998 the House of Commons abolished school corporal punishment throughout the United Kingdom by a vote of 211 to 15. Flogging, caning, ear-boxing and other punishments had already been banned in state-run schools since 1986. In 1999 this prohibition was broadened to include private schools. And the idea of banning corporal punishment at home is starting to gain ground. In October 2002 a network of churches for nonviolence, composed of representatives from the Church of England (Anglican) and from Reformed Methodist Churches (Protestant), declared their support for a ban on spanking children. They published a guide promoting positive discipline methods which avoid corporal punishment. A number of children's rights associations, such as Barnados and Save the Children, are campaigning in Great Britain for a ban on the physical punishment on children. But on July 5, 2004, the House of Lords once again refused, by 226 to 91, to abolish physical punishment outright, leaving parents free to apply "reasonable" corporal punishment that leaves no visible marks on the skin. If the House of Commons and the queen approve this vote in November 2004, English children will continue to be denied the legal protection from assault that all adults enjoy.  

In Scotland some Christian organizations in February and September of 2002 opposed a ban on the corporal punishment of children. But, for the time being, the government refuses to ban physical chastisements entirely, leaving parents free to apply "reasonable" corporal punishment, so long as it is carried out in a "loving and affectionate" context.  

Western Europe  

Two countries from this region, Austria and Germany, have banned corporal punishment in the home as well as in the schools. The other countries remain noncommittal in their stance.  

The case of France clearly illustrates the ineffectiveness or, to be more exact, the extremely slow effect of legal bans when they apply only to the schools. As we have seen above, the first attempts to reduce violence at school date back to the 17th century. In the 18th century Rousseau's influence led in the same direction. In 1834 an initial ban seems to have been largely ineffective, judging by the persistent level of violence in the schools of the 19th century. The very strict law of 1887 — "it is absolutely prohibited to inflict any form of corporal punishment" — was probably more effective, but it turned out to be offset by a decision which recognized teachers as having a right of correction [i.e., punishment]. A century later, the courts still recognize this same entitlement. And in 1990, 44% of elementary school teachers admitted to sometimes giving spankings.  

As for violence within the family, according to the Penal Code (Article 222-13) 2, even hitting without causing injury, and no matter what motive has prompted it, is punishable by fines and prison time, with added severity if the victims are under 15 years and when committed by parents or grandparents. Article 312 of the Penal Code [repealed subsequent to this book's publication – hypernote?] establishes penalties for "Whoseoever shall willfully strike or commit acts of assault against a minor below the age of 15 years," while adding, "with the exception of mild violence," which effectively justifies ordinary disciplinary violence. Moreover, the penalties indicated by the Code are so heavy that of course no one wants to see them imposed on parents who engage in spanking or face-slapping. But the result of having no specific laws that address spanking is that, based on a survey conducted by SOFRES for the group Éduquer sans frapper [later to become Ni claques ni fessées], only 16% of parents do not hit their children, which means at least 84% are hitting theirs (even though 45% of those surveyed think that physical punishment has negative consequences).   

All the same, we might reflect on how it came to be that anything harsher than a slap in the face or a spanking marks the point at which people see punishment as having crossed over into abuse, which is not to say that such harsh punishments do not occur. This evolution, which was very slow, as we have seen, probably owes much to the influence of child-rearing guides, like those by Benjamin Spock or Françoise Dolto, that either radically condemned spanking, as with Dolto, or did not abide any physical punishment that went beyond a few open-handed swats on the buttocks. It would be interesting to know, for instance, what was the last child-rearing guide to advocate the use of a whip or ruler.  

Paradoxically, France's Ombudsman for Children [2000-2006], Claire Brisset, feels that it would be premature to seek a ban on disciplinary violence.3 Boris Cyrulnik, who is very influential in the world of child-care professionals, is on record as an opponent of legal abolition, which according to him would cause verbal abuse to worsen. And when he and Claire Brisset organized a symposium under the title "Chronicle of Hidden Violence" on October 13, 2003, a symposium that supposedly would denounce everyday violence, not a single member of the group Ni claques ni fessées ["Without slaps or spankings"], the only one pressing for this violence to be banned, was invited to take part. Up until now, one lone member of Parliament, André Santini, has indicated support for outlawing all forms of disciplinary violence. On May 22, 2000, he put a question to the Minister for Children and Families by way of signaling to her that a shift in public opinion was at hand toward introducing an offense of corporal punishment into the penal code, following the example of what certain countries, and particularly Sweden since 1979, have already done. He asked her whether the governmental powers had any plans for raising awareness of this issue.  

In Switzerland the debate over parents' right to use violence (smacks, slaps, spankings) to correct their children was recently reopened (July 9, 2003) by a Federal Court decision which stated that "repeated hitting that is indicative of habit could not be justified in the name of parents' right to correct and discipline." It was, unfortunately, an ambiguous ruling, for the Federal Court said that parents of course have the right to give their child a slap now and again, on the condition that this "right of correction" "always follows unsuitable behavior" and occurs "with a disciplinary objective." All parents who hit their children believe themselves to be acting "with a disciplinary objective." And when we are truly serious about banning certain behavior, like breaking the speed limit, for example, are we content to ban only that which is "repeated and indicative of habit"?

Eastern Europe

All of the former communist countries receive more or less the same evaluation from the Committee in terms of corporal punishment. The measurements taken are inadequate throughout the region, statistics virtually non-existent. In Poland a survey conducted in 1998 found that 14% of 12-year-olds have been physically punished by their parents in a manner causing lasting trauma  (Médecins du Monde, March 2000).

In Russia, the first report, from October 1992, underscored a growing number of child-cruelty victims and in particular their extremely young age. Thirty percent of children hospitalized following abuse were less than a year old. Another 30% were pre-schoolers, with the remaining 40% being of school age. Fifty thousand children, moreover, had run away from home on account of mistreatment, and close to 20,000 had run away from foster homes for the same reason.

In Hungary, a survey carried out by the TÁRKI firm shows that the majority of Hungarian families agree with corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children. Three-fourths of those surveyed say that parents have a right to apply it.  

Turning to the Republic of Turkmenistan, president-for-life and former Soviet apparatchik Saparmourad Niazov made himself perfectly clear on Radio Free Europe: "We must discipline our youth. Ibn Sina [Avicenna, poet-philosopher] would say that whoever seeks to raise his child well must beat him. It is like the fertilizer one uses in farming." (Le Monde 8/14/02). And most likely, his opinion is shared by the general public.  

Southern Europe

Two countries from this region, Croatia and Italy, have banned corporal punishment in the home. In Spain and in Portugal, as well as Macedonia and the countries of former Yugoslavia, corporal punishment is banned in the schools and judicial systems, though still tolerated in domestic family settings, where parents may "administer reasonable punishments to their children in moderation." In reality, like everywhere else, hitting has to leave serious after-effects for social services and the courts to get involved. [NOTE: Since this book's writing, Spain and Portugal have extended their corporal punishment bans to the home (2007).]  

Proceed to:

Europe, Africa, The Americas, Asia, Oceania

Proceed/Return to:


1 – A Brief History of Disciplinary Violence
2 – The Nature of Disciplinary Violence and Opinions on the Matter
3 – Why we must stop using corporal punishment
4 – How can we raise children without hitting?
5 – Why is it necessary to ban disciplinary violence?
6 – What to do?
7 – Question for the author
8 – Questions for the reader

World geography of disciplinary violence by continent and country

I – Introduction for the EMIDA Family Education Program
II – Why the Church must denounce ordinary disciplinary violence
III – Resistance every advocate of a spanking ban can expect to face
IV – Declaration against "disciplinary" violence



1. Scribner (New York), 1996; p. 80.

2. TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Repealed subsequent to this book's publication.

3. TRANSLATOR'S NOTE: Brisset’s successor, Dominique Versini, has taken a stance in 2009 that is more receptive to the idea of a ban.