Smacking your child as a form of discipline is a controversial topic and one that continues to divide parents, globally.

Many Australian parents believe smacking is an effective way to discourage bad behaviour, but most use non-physical means of discipline such as taking away technology and using time-outs.

Whereas some parents utterly detest any form of smacking of children, no matter how soft or mild.

Several countries have drawn a line and outlawed corporal punishment of children including New Zealand. But there’s no law against parents striking or smacking their child in Australia.

Under the Crimes Act (specifically under section 61AA entitled ‘Defence of lawful correction’), if an act is considered an assault and the police are involved parents may be liable for criminal charges. However, a parent can defend an assault charge if the parent uses physical force on their own child, not on someone else’s, and the physical force is ‘reasonable’ with respect to the child’s age, health, and maturity.

But the physical force is not considered reasonable if it was applied to any part of the head or neck of the child, or if it causes harm that lasts more than a short period, such as force causing bruising.

Given issues often arise in relation to a parent’s use of physical discipline, should you smack your children when they do the wrong thing?

Times have changed

Many parents grew up in cultures, or at times, when physical punishment was commonplace and even encouraged. But times have changed.

In the 1990s, the New South Wales Government banned corporal punishment in public schools.

The Family Courts can, and routinely do make orders prohibiting either party from physically disciplining their children, if requested.

Some years ago, I heard of a case in which a father was charged with assaulting his 15-year-old daughter. The father loved his child dearly but was struggling to cope following a separation and having difficulty dealing with anger and mistrust from his former partner.

The father and daughter argued, he lost his temper and clipped his daughter over the head with his open hand a little harder than he intended. The daughter called the police and her father was charged with assault.

In the end, he pleaded guilty in court to a charge of assault. The mother then cut off all contact between the children and their father. But the mother was left in charge with an out-of-control teenager, who now felt empowered to be rude and disobedient to whoever she pleased.

What do the experts say?

Parenting is difficult at the best of times. And the challenges often increase following a separation or divorce. Parents often need to adjust to parenting alone, in circumstances where there is still anger and mistrust.

It’s never acceptable to hit children out of anger or frustration or in a way that could be considered cruel or inappropriate.

While a small physical reprimand to a child may be considered acceptable to draw to their attention that they face a situation of danger, or that their behaviour is inappropriate, the experts in this field disagree.

Studies suggest there are better and more effective ways to discipline children than using physical force.

In circumstances of family breakdown, parents hopefully can learn to cooperate and support each other on issues of consistent, appropriate discipline.  If they don’t, they run the risk of having accusations made against them which create complications and can damage their children’s welfare. For such parents, and probably for all parents, smacking or any physical discipline should be avoided at all costs.