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Equally Protected? A review of the evidence on the physical punishment of children

The physical punishment of children is still a common parenting practice in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Although legal reform to protect children from all physical punishment in all settings is now regarded as an obligation under international human rights law, its use is lawful in the home and in private foster care in all four UK jurisdictions. This means that children do not have the same level of legal protection from violence as adults.

The use of physical punishment, however, is becoming more and more controversial. There is increasing recognition that physical punishment constitutes a violation of children’s human rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), and research evidence on its detrimental effects on children’s health and development is fast accumulating. The last decade has seen a surge in the number of research articles on the outcomes of physical punishment for children, as well as in the rate at which states across the world have legislated to prohibit all forms of physical punishment and give children equal protection. Over the same period, child policy in Scotland has increasingly been developed with reference to a children’s rights framework. The Scottish Government’s overarching approach to child wellbeing (‘Getting it Right for Every Child’) is based on the twin principles of prevention and early intervention, and clearly articulates the right of all children to be nurtured, kept safe and have the best start in life.

This research project was commissioned by NSPCC Scotland, Children 1st, Barnardo’s Scotland and the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland, with the aim of updating the findings of a previous review on physical punishment published in Northern Ireland in 2008 (‘NI Review’). The current review summarises the evidence that has become available in the years since the NI Review, focusing on the following three research questions:

1. What are the prevalence of / attitudes towards different types of parental physical punishment in the UK and other OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries? In particular,

   a. What are the trends over time?

   b. What evidence is there of changes in prevalence / attitudes in countries which have made physical punishment illegal?

2. What are the outcomes of physical punishment for child health and development, and later-life health and wellbeing?

3. Is parental use of physical punishment related to an increased risk of child maltreatment?