Monday, March 20, 2006

Case study on smacking: Sweden


a ban on smacking did not change public attitudes to corporal punishment

In 1979, Sweden passed legislation that effectively abolished corporal punishment as a legitimate child rearing practice. The primary reason for the ban was to change attitudes to corporal punishment.

In 1957 the statutory defence was completely removed from the Swedish Penal Code in order to provide children with the same protection from assault that adults received. However the Parent's Code, a civil code governing family law, still contained a paragraph permitting parents to use physical discipline that would not be assault under the Penal Code.

In 1966 a parent's right to use corporal punishment was removed from the Parents Code, although not explicitly banned, until 1979.

The reason for a legislative ban, rather than a ban with penalties, was because the primary purpose of the law was to change attitudes in society regarding physical discipline, rather then punish for trivial smacking.
Should physical chastisement met out to a child cause bodily injury or pain which is more than of a very temporary duration it is classified as assault and is on offence punishable under the criminal code.. although as before, trivial offences will remain unpunished, either because they cannot be classified as assault or because an action is not brought ( Min of Justice 1979)

Assault is categorised into three levels in Sweden. Aggravated assaults are serious warranting prison sentences up to 10 years, Common assaults carry a maximum of two years prison and petty assaults are the mildest level and are punishable by fines.

Child advocate Joan Durrant has said this: "Although the actual child physical abuse rate can never be known, it can be estimated through an examination of child criminal deaths" - which did not increase for the ten year period before and after the 1979 ban.

Durrant has noted that the "Child criminal deaths rates, which have remained at a constantly low rate since 1974, suggest that child physical abuse has not increased in the wake of the corporal punishment ban. In fact by the late 1980s, infant homicide was the lowest in the world. "

What Durrant failed to state was that Swedish infant homicide has been the lowest in the world for many years before the late 1980's, and the corporal punishment ban had no effect on child abuse and infant homicide rates. The following illustrates how the percentages of smacking approval have been tabled, and is compared with figures in a report written by Julian V Roberts, from the Department of Criminology in the University of Ottawa in Canada.

Durrant Roberts
Year percentage percentage
(na=did not state)
1965 53 53
1968 42 42
1971 35 35
1979 na 26
1980 na 29
1981 26 26
1994 11 na
1995 na 34


As you can see from the above, decline in public support of corporal punishment was more significant before 1979 than after, reducing from 53 percent to 26 percent in 1979/1981, and actually rising to 34 percent in 1995. It is significant that Durrant does not include the statistics for 1979, 1980 and 1995 in her analysis.

Furthermore Durrant has compared the 1994 figure with the 1965 one despite different questions being asked on the surveys. From 1965 to 1981 the question to respondents was, " A child has to be given corporal punishment from time to time". In other words, physical punishment is some times necessary.

But 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 child rearing (Lundgren, 1994). The 11% cited by Durrant in 1994 were “positively inclined to milder forms of physical punishment”, while a further 22% were “in principle against all forms of physical punishment, but can use such punishment if upset enough.”

Only 56% were against all forms of physical punishment, and the remaining 10% did not choose any of the three options. The survey also included the following item, which was closer to the wording used between 1965 and 1981: “Mild or moderate physical punishment is sometimes necessary as a child rearing method, but should be carefully considered and not the result of anger.” Thirty-four per cent agreed partly or fully with this item, an increase from the 26% support in 1978, just before the 1979 ban

So the 11% figure Durrant was using compares apples with oranges.

The question in the 1995 poll was "Respondents were asked to agree fully, partly or not at all with the statement that "mild or, moderate (my emphasis) smacking physical punishment is sometimes necessary as a child rearing method, but should be carefully considered and not the result of anger".

Durrant conveniently omits this in her analysis.

In 1995 34 percent agreed partly or fully with the statement (Statistics, Sweden 1996) with 11 percent "didn’t know". In 1981 only 3 percent responded with "didn’t know".

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), further indicating that public attitudes had changed well before reform.

In New Zealand fewer than 20 percent of people believe that children should be brought up without the use of corporal punishment.

If the 1979 law had indeed changed public attitudes, rather that reflected them, it would be reasonable to expect the percentage of respondents endorsing this use of corporal punishment to have declined from 1979-1995. In fact, in 1991 the Swedish statistical agency asked a random sample of mothers a number of questions about the ways they punished their children. Slightly more than half (51%) admitted to using some kind of physical punishment.

The Swedish reform did not reduce the level of public support for parental use of corporal punishment as a means of disciplining children. Support for physical punishment began declining years before the reform was passed - since 1965 at least - and the decline was in no way accelerated by the law reform. Changes in public opinion may have generated the legal reform, but the reverse is not true.

Changing people’s attitudes towards physical discipline is not a valid justification for legislative change. It didn’t work in Sweden when support for smacking was just 26 percent of the population in 1979, and it won`t work in New Zealand where 80 percent of our population support the option of smacking their kids.

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