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What is the Law on Smacking Children?

What is the Law on Smacking Children?



It is unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to 'reasonable punishment'. This defence is laid down in Section 58 of the Children Act 2004, but it is not defined in this legislation.

Whether a ‘smack’ amounts to reasonable punishment will depend on the circumstances of each case taking into consideration factors like the age of the child and the nature of the smack.

Physical punishment will be considered ‘unreasonable’ if it leaves a mark on the child or if the child is hit with a fist/closed hand or an implement such as a cane or a belt. It would also be deemed unreasonable if smacking became any more than an isolated incident.


Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 limits the use of the defence of reasonable punishment so that it can no longer be used when people are charged with the offences against a child of wounding, actual or grievous bodily harm or cruelty. Therefore, any injury sustained by a child which is serious enough to warrant a charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm cannot be considered to be as the result of reasonable punishment. 

A parent can be charged with a criminal offence if they harm their child. This also includes any other person that is a carer or works with children under the following certain offences: 

  • an offence under Section 18 and 20 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 (wounding and causing grievous bodily harm)
  • an offence under Section 47 of that act (assault occasioning actual bodily harm) 
  • an offence under Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933 (cruelty to persons under 16) 


Physical punishment or chastisement of children and young people can have a very detrimental effect on their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

It can be tempting to think a smack sorts out incidents like disobedience and biting. However, it does nothing to teach your child how you want him or her to behave.

Instead it:

  • gives a bad example of how to handle strong emotions;
  • may lead children to hit or bully others;
  • may encourage children to lie or hide feelings to avoid;
  • can make defiant behaviour worse, so discipline gets even harder; and
  • leads to a resentful and angry child, and damages family relationships if it continues for a long time.

Physical punishment, such as smacking, slapping, pushing or hitting with an implement can cause:

  • direct physical harm or injury such as bruises, cuts, reddening of the skin, scratches, swelling or even broken bones;
  • mental harm such as anxiety, isolation, feeling victimised, damage to self-esteem, or a reduction in confidence;
  • increased risk of anti-social behaviour from the child;
  • increased aggression in children including fighting with siblings, friends and using violence to seek attention;
  • increased violent and criminal behaviour in adulthood;
  • an acceptance that violence is OK, and it is fine to use force to get your own way, if you are annoyed with someone or if they have hurt you; and 
  • a breakdown in family relationships, with resentment that could affect the relationship between parents and children into their adulthood.

There is no justification for inflicting pain on a child or young person as a parent (or any other adult carer).

Any form of physical punishment that leaves a mark on a child or young person is considered an assault and is illegal under the Section 58 of the Children Act 2004.


It is illegal for teachers, nursery workers and child care workers to smack another person’s child. If a person is employed privately by a parent, such as a babysitter or nanny, the parent may give permission for that person to smack their child as long as it is reasonable and does not amount to an offence.  


  • Give love and warmth as much as possible
  • Have clear simple rules and limits
  • Be a good role model
  • Praise good behaviour so it will increase
  • Ignore behaviour you don’t want repeated
  • Criticise behaviours, not your child
  • Reward good behaviour with hugs and kisses
  • Distract young children or use humour
  • Allow children some control; joint decisions, choices
  • If a punishment is necessary, the removal of privileges, ‘time out’ or natural consequences are better.