This site is intended for health professionals only

Banning physical punishment puts children front and centre in Wales

The sooner we recognise children and young people are their own human beings and have rights to education, safety and a happy life, the better the outcomes will be for society.

Here in Wales we are entering a historic period that will see children’s rights further protected thanks to new Welsh Government legislation. The Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act 2020 will remove an archaic legal defence by outlawing the physical punishment of children when it comes into force in Wales on 21 March 2022.

As a mother of two myself and having worked with children and young people in my previous role as a specialist school nurse and in my current role in a specialist drug and alcohol team, I’m committed to delivering the best possible outcomes for children and their families. This legislation will not only strengthen children’s rights in Wales, but also help professionals like myself greatly in this endeavour.

From a children’s rights perspective, this new law is absolutely huge. Three years ago I was given the role of being a children’s rights ambassador for the Cardiff and Vale University Health Board. Through a number of focus groups, we developed a ‘children’s charter’, which is a set of promises based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). This charter is now the basis for the care given to children and young people across the health board.

I also set up a youth board to bring children and young people together to have a real voice in the health board itself. The children and young people now sit on interview panels for staff, present at events, talk about children’s rights, and develop materials for staff so the voices of children and young people are heard in staff training sessions. They have a real say in quite major decisions in the health board; from planning the new hospital build to healthy eating campaigns, everyone wants to consult with them.

As I work with a lot of vulnerable children and young people, I do a lot of education around drugs and alcohol, and their wider wellbeing. Some of the young people I speak to are quite vulnerable and I’ve had powerful feedback from them. On one occasion, a young boy said: ‘If my father doesn’t hit me, how will I learn?’ It’s just heart-breaking; statements like that really hit home. Other children couldn’t get their heads around why they didn’t deserve to be physically punished as it had become a normal part of their lives. Physical punishment in all its forms goes against everything the UNCRC stands for and I’m just over the moon this legislation is finally becoming law here in Wales.

I was talking about the new law with my daughter as I have never hit or smacked my children. I said I remember every single time, vividly, when my own dad hit me. It wasn’t very often and only when I was very naughty, but I can even tell you the colour of the walls and exactly where I was. It was so hurtful at the time and left a big impression physically and emotionally on me. My elderly father is extremely regretful now, but it was just the norm at the time and what he thought he should do.

I think people are better educated today, but not everybody. People are very aware that physical punishment doesn’t work; it doesn’t lead to improved discipline, it simply creates more trauma and affects the parent/carer/child relationship adversely for a long time. Attitudes have changed, but there are still pockets of society, parents and carers who feel as if they own their children. The children belong to them and that’s where there needs to be a shift in attitude. Giving a child better knowledge about their rights leads to better education and better outcomes all round.

The sooner we recognise children and young people are their own human beings and have rights to education, safety and a happy life, the better the outcomes will be for society. It’s about knowledge and education for parents and carers. Assault doesn’t work: the evidence is there. You’re effectively teaching children violence is a way to sort out things and in doing so, not allowing children and young people to develop their own positive coping mechanisms.

Having different strategies for parenting is where community nurses, health visitors and school nurses come in. We can help to educate about positive parenting methods -which definitely does not include smacking – look at what works and what doesn’t work, while nurturing and rewarding good behaviour.

You can certainly see young people who respond with violence where maybe there had been violence as a norm at home. If they see violence as a way of dealing with things, it carries on in their own life and ultimately in their own parenting strategies.

I very much focus on positive affirmation for good behaviour. A child will often get zero attention while they do good things. If they do something wrong, they are shouted at or smacked and they realise this behaviour attracts attention so they’ll do more of it.

Making a fuss of their good behaviour is very important. Make them feel loved, tell them something positive each day. Give them compliments not just about their achievements, but also how they are as a person. When they do something wrong or unsafe, remind them there will be a consequence. That might be removing mobile phones or taking away some privileges, but explaining all the time what you are doing and why. 

Covid-19 has shown the disparity between those who have and those who have not. It has put a real spotlight on families that are struggling. For some, spending more time together has been a pleasant experience, but for others, where tension already exists in the family set up, then being crammed together is like being in a pressure cooker. These inequalities will undoubtedly have led to more physical punishment in some families and the rising domestic violence figures are proof of that. However, at the same time, research conducted by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales has shown some young people are now closer to their families than ever before as a result of the pandemic lockdowns. 

The pandemic clearly dominated 2020 but by passing this law to end the physical punishment of children, it was also a year that put children’s rights centre stage here in Wales. When the law comes into force in March 2022, any ambiguity about physical punishment will end, and I for one am very happy about that.