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First ban on smacking children

Smacking children was banned in Sweden already in 1979, a radical world first. Since then, many more countries have implemented laws against corporal punishment of children.

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Photo: Carolina Romare/imagebank.sweden.se

First ban on smacking children

Smacking children was banned in Sweden already in 1979, a radical world first. Since then, many more countries have implemented laws against corporal punishment of children.

Corporal punishment is forbidden

Spanking, slapping, smacking, pinching, hair-pulling, whipping, paddling – corporal punishment by any name or means is prohibited in Sweden, both at home and in school. And it is severely frowned upon.

This has not always been the case. Until the 1960s, nine out of ten preschool children in Sweden were spanked at home. Slowly, though, more and more parents voluntarily refrained from its use and corporal punishment was prohibited throughout the educational system in 1958.

A world first

During the 1970s, the debate on child abuse intensified. Staffan Janson, previously pediatrician and professor of public health in the Swedish city of Karlstad, explained that attitudes had changed already before the new law came:

‘When parliament voted on the issue in 1979, two-thirds of parents were already in favour of a legal injunction.’

On 15 March 1979, the members of the Swedish parliament were the first in the world to vote for the prohibition. The law was implemented on 1 July 1979.

The measure cemented popular attitudes. In the 1980s only a third of children were spanked, and in the 1990s that number had shrunk to about a fifth, according to Janson. He has had his findings on violence against children published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.

A positive global trend

Sweden’s neighbours Finland and Norway enacted similar laws in 1983 and 1987. Austria followed in 1989. Then the pace picked up, and as of 2020,  a total of 60 countries have prohibited all corporal punishment of children.

In other words, what was widely viewed as a radical, very Swedish initiative in the 1970s has now become an official norm in more than 50 of the world’s 203 nations, and in at least 56 other countries governments have expressed a commitment to law reform.

The world map of countries with a ban on corporal punishment of children is growing, as of 2017. In 1979, Sweden was alone on this map.

Illustration: Save the Children, Sweden

A democratic development

Why was Sweden ahead of other nations?

According to Jansson, it has to do with the fact that ‘economic development and the institution of paid parental leave decreased parents’ stress level. Technological inventions produced safer homes, lessening the need for harsh discipline. Also, since more children attended preschool, it became increasingly difficult for abusive parents to hide their children’s bruises.

‘But most importantly, the continuous growth of a democratic, egalitarian ideal meant that more and more Swedes felt that all people – children too – should enjoy equal protection from violence’, he said.

Words, not violence

Swedish Save the Children often get questions about the prohibition from other nations, due to the country’s long experience. Parents sometimes ask them: ‘But if you do not beat them, how do you discipline your children?’ Save the Children tries to convey the message that you can get very far with words and that the child–parent relationship should not have to regress into violence.

Getting the facts straight

Every now and then, Save the Children also has to counter serious misunderstandings about the law. People may say that ‘juvenile delinquency has increased rapidly’ in Sweden since 1979, that ‘many parents are sent to jail for spanking’ and that ‘child murders have increased’, none of which is true.

According to Staffan Janson, the number of murdered children in Sweden is in reality very low, perhaps the lowest in the world. There is no evidence that the abolition of corporal punishment leads to higher crime rates. And parents are not jailed for a single spanking, just as adults are not imprisoned for slapping another adult once.

Research also shows that serious child abuse decreases when countries abolish corporal punishment.

‘Small children below the age of five or six lack the mental capacity to comprehend the reasons for a spanking’, Janson said. ‘Nor can they remember that reason from one time to another. In the absence of a ban, then, parents are tempted to use harsher and harsher means, which in a stressful situation may turn into brutal child abuse.’

Sweden today

Is all well in Sweden, then? Hardly. Corporal punishment has not disappeared. About five per cent of all children are still spanked, despite the ban.

The children’s helpline BRIS (Children’s Rights in Society) usually points out that roughly 80 per cent of children are reasonably happy and well, about 15 per cent are less fortunate, and 5 per cent live in dysfunctional families.

They see that some children who are beaten and psychologically abused are taught that if they tell on the spanking parent, ‘Daddy will end up in jail’. But without the ban on corporal punishment, parents’ boundaries would most likely be much vaguer and violence more common.

Decreasing violence against children is a slow process, but it seems that the world is at least moving ahead.

This article was originally published in 2009.

Last updated: 9 January 2020

Jonas Fredén

Jonas Fredén is a freelance journalist. He has worked for Finanstidningen (Finance news), Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s public service radio broadcaster, and the daily Dagens Nyheter.