UCL smacking study is ‘bunk’ – campaigners

A new study linking smacking to negative outcomes in children is “bunk” and points to political bias in academia, campaigners have said.

The study by University College London researchers, reported on this morning, describes smacking as an ‘Adverse Childhood Experience’ (ACE), giving it equal weight to parental drug and alcohol use and domestic violence.

It has been seized on as evidence that all physical discipline of children should be outlawed in England, following recent moves in Scotland and Wales to remove a legal defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’.

Dr Rebecca Lacey, a co-author of the study, told journalists it was “time for England to follow suit”. Equating mild physical discipline with ‘violence’, she added: “The current pandemic has placed additional pressures on couples and families and there are fears over increases in violence”. “Never a more important time then to ensure that those women and children are protected”.

The Be Reasonable campaign, a coalition of academics and parenting experts, highlights serious problems with the research, set out in detail in Appendix A. A campaign spokesman said:

“An examination of this report shows that it is bunk. The report only refers to smacking on a regular basis, not occasional use. The ‘smacking’ cohort is far too broad, defined to include both those who smack lightly once a month alongside those who physically abuse their children. The study prioritises regularity of use of punishment rather than harshness. And it assumes punishment leads to behavioural problems, leaving no space for prior behaviour as an aggravating factor.”

“It is far more plausible that negative outcomes described in children can be attributed to the more traumatic experiences they encountered. The fact that smacking has been added, arbitrarily, as an additional ‘Adverse Childhood Experience’ suggests that there was a political motivation for doing so. No reliable, scientific evidence exists to prove that mild and infrequent smacking does any harm to a child.”

Experts in sociology and parenting also criticised the study. Dr Ashley Frawley, a sociologist at Swansea University, commented:

“This is not research done by disinterested people in white lab coats who have ‘discovered’ something in the course of disinterested data gathering. This is research done to reach a predetermined conclusion, which you can see in the jump to the conclusion that smacking should be outlawed. Why not also shouting? Putting children in their rooms? Actually, I shouldn’t say that, because you know they would outlaw that next.

“The idea that parents being under pressure during lockdown should mean that we should then threaten them with criminal prosecution is absolutely mind-boggling.”

Professor Ellie Lee, Director of the Centre for Parenting and Culture Studies at the University of Kent, said:

“This study provides no more basis than any other for making smacking a criminal offence. Indeed, given the on-going debate about the concept ACEs, what is most striking is the cavalier fashion in which an academic paper that may, or may not, add much to understanding about child development is used as the basis for taking forward this campaign.

“It seems especially remarkable that the context of the pandemic and lockdown would be seen as an ideal opportunity to do this. Given the very serious problems for children and parents, you would hope minds would be focussed on doing something other than politicising smacking (alongside taking away treats, sending a child to their room, or shouting).”

Dr Stuart Waiton, a senior lecturer in sociology and criminology at Abertay University, said:

“This is yet another advocacy piece of research that knows what it’s going to find before it starts. The reality is that these ‘research’ projects by ‘experts’ tell us more about the professional classes and their deep-seated prejudices about ordinary people than anything about children or parents.

“The warped mind-set that can take seriously this idea of one smack to an under three-year-old having ever lasting damage is what should worry us. Because this is a growing outlook amongst the new expert classes who increasingly see ordinary parents as a threat to their children and view children through a one-dimensional prism of vulnerability.

“Let’s hope these same experts go on to find out what impact criminalising parents for lightly smacking their children has. Of course, this research will never happen because it will raise questions about the elitist dogma that sees all problems emanating from parents and all solutions coming with the ever-greater interference of ‘experts’ into people’s lives.”


Notes for Editors:

Issued on behalf of Be Reasonable Scotland by:

Tom Hamilton Communications
Mob: 07836 603 977

Appendix A

Detailed scrutiny of the study by Be Reasonable concludes:

1. ‘Smacking’ in the report is limited to those parents who smack their three-year-old child once a month or more. Where parents reported that they smacked their child ‘rarely’, it was marked that they did not use physical punishment. It is therefore impossible to make any judgement on occasional parental smacking from the report.

2. No distinction is made within the ‘physical punishment’ group between parents who smack their child daily and those who do so monthly. Moreover, there is no distinction made between how hard or cautiously the child is smacked. It is thus possible that there are parents within the smacking group who are physically abusing their children, alongside parents who gently smack their child fairly irregularly.

3. ‘Harsh parenting’ is a similarly limited construct. Parents were scored on how often they used certain forms of parenting; for example sending children to their room or a ‘naughty chair’, shouting at them, taking away treats, or bribing them. On the one hand, this means conclusions can’t be made about parents who used these methods on rare occasions; on the other hand, it is easy to imagine the group contains a wide variety of different parents. The parent who uses the ‘naughty chair’ and tells their child off once a week is in the same category as the parent who shouts and screams at their child several times a day.

4. The authors assume that the correlation they find between ACEs and adolescent behaviour demonstrates causation. It is possible that this is correct to a limited degree, but it fails to recognise the behaviour of the younger child as a problematising factor. It is thus completely unclear whether the misbehaviour of the child causes more punishment, or punishment causes misbehaviour. Correlation does not equal causation.