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Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

Physical punishment of children in the home

Gabrielle Maxwell


Although smacking, caning and strapping have been used to bring up generations of New Zealanders there is surprisingly little information on the actual use of physical punishment by New Zealand parents. Perhaps this is because, as suggested by an earlier study by the Jane and James Ritchie (1980), most parents believe that physical punishment is not only right but desirable in the rearing of children: to spare the rod is to spoil the child. This article reviews studies of child rearing practice in New Zealand families in order to find out about the extent of physical punishment and the views of parents and children on its use

Although smacking, caning and strapping have been used to bring up generations of New Zealanders there is surprisingly little information on the actual use of physical punishment by New Zealand parents. Perhaps this is because, as suggested by the Ritchies (1980), most parents believe that physical punishment is not only right but desirable in the rearing of children: to spare the rod is to spoil the child.

Yet there is also a new mood, a mood in which people are increasingly concerned about violence in society and, particularly, violence in the home. Media reports of crime statistics suggest, rightly or wrongly, that the levels of violent crime have reached an unprecedented level. Police and politicians are targeting family violence and proposing crime prevention strategies that will reduce violence in all areas of life. Concerns over domestic violence and child abuse are increasingly being linked to violence in the media, in sport and in our methods of child rearing.

It is therefore timely to review what we actually know about physical punishment in the home.


In 1963 and 1964, Jane Ritchie carried out a study of child rearing patterns in New Zealand families by surveying mothers of four-year-olds (described in Ritchie and Ritchie 1970). The results present a picture of parents who, although expressing their love for children, were cautious about the use of praise and reward and united in a belief that it is wrong to use money as an incentive for doing jobs. On the other hand, many used isolation, some used threats of loss of privileges or liberty and some reasoned with their children. But, say the Ritchies: 'the lead role in the play of sanctions (was) the punishment; frank, direct and physical, or verbal in the form of threats, shouting scolding or berating'. Only a third of these mothers of four-year-olds reported spanking rarely; that is, less than once a month. Forty per cent spanked from once a month to once a week and a quarter more frequently than this, with daily spankings occurring for as many as 11 per cent.

The comments made by these mothers clearly emphasised their strong belief in the legitimacy of their actions: 'I never hit a child except in anger.' 'It clears the air'. 'He may not act any better, but I certainly feel better.'

In 1977 the Ritchies asked similar questions again of a reasonably comparable sample, this time including both mothers and fathers. With respect to discipline, the report (Ritchie 1979) notes a number of positive changes. In the second study more emphasis was being reported on the use of explanation and praise but the reported frequency of use of physical punishment had actually increased between the early 1960s and 1977. In 1963, 1 per cent reported never using this method and this number had increased to 10 per cent in 1977, but in all other categories the change was for the worse with 39 per cent reporting using it once a week and 16 per cent reporting using it daily in 1977 compared with figures of 24 per cent and 11 per cent respectively in 1963.

In 1970 the Ritchies wrote that the mothers regarded punishment: 'as being as necessary for child rearing as the mid-morning cup of tea is for sanity - the mother's ever- present help in time of trouble and not to be missed.' (p.112) In 1979 Jane Ritchie writes that: 'the only qualification we would make to that statement on the basis of the 1977 data is that mothers probably are drinking coffee, not tea at mid-morning, and that punishment is more prevalent than ever' (p.11)

Further analysis showed that mothers were more likely to report smacking four-year-olds than two-year-olds even though positive strategies such as 'explanations' would now be possible with the older children. Ritchie sees this a further evidence of the reactive nature of physical punishment in New Zealand and its ideological importance. She says: 'culturally we believe in punishment, its efficacy and virtue.' Such an interpretation seems to be reinforced by the fact that most mothers reported that the common reactions of their children to being physically punished were 'hurt feelings', 'anger' and 'upset'. Mothers appear to be interpreting the distress of their children as validation of the effectiveness of the method of discipline rather than as evidence of pain and damage which they would, in other circumstances, be quick to attempt to allay.

Nevertheless, although nearly 30 per cent report that they believe they are doing the right thing, another approximately 30 per cent say that are a bit bothered by using physical punishment, and 18 per cent report feeling terrible or guilty. And furthermore, in contrast to 1963 when 41 per cent said they found it unequivocally effective, in 1977 only 14 per cent said this although another 55 per cent said that they had few reservations or found it moderately effective.


In 1981, Jane Ritchie again reported on the use of physical punishment. This time she focused on parental attitudes. She used questions about whether or not 'There are certain circumstances when it is alright for a parent to smack (or thrash) a child', and modified the item in four other different ways to ask about views of mothers and fathers hitting teenage sons and daughters. And she also asked about whether or not the sample of parents had used physical punishment with their pre-school, primary and secondary age children.

About 80 per cent reported using physical methods of punishing their pre-school and primary school children and 92 per cent of men and 86 per cent of women endorsed smacking children in 'certain circumstances'. However, the use of a thrashing in 'certain circumstances' was only endorsed by 15 per cent of men and 6 per cent of women.

The questions used by Ritchie in 1981 were part of a wider study of family violence. She found that endorsement of physical punishment, especially of teenagers, was linked with people's own reported experiences as children and with their own reported behaviour toward their children. Furthermore, physical punishment of teenage children was also linked with the endorsement of corporal punishment in schools and to the use of violence in settling other types of disputes including domestic quarrels. Similar findings have also emerged from overseas studies (Straus and Gelles 1990).


The link between physical punishment in one generation and behaviour in the next is confirmed in a study by Shona Munro in Dunedin in 1982. Munro obtained the replies of 100 fourth-formers (aged 135) to a questionnaire. She asked them about their experience of different types of punishment as pre-schoolers, primary school pupils and secondary school pupils, how they evaluated their experiences and what they intended to do when they had children of their own. She also asked about the type of offences for which they had been physically punished (that is, smacked or belted) and how effective they felt that physical punishment had been.

The majority of children reported being smacked for (in order of frequency) disobedience, cheekiness, swearing, telling lies, squabbling and stealing (81 per cent to 57 per cent) while about half as many reported being belted for these offences (46 per cent to 30 per cent). Less than half the sample reported being smacked for acting the fool, breaking things, being noisy, being untidy or forgetfulness (40 per cent to 6 per cent) and, as before, about half the number reported being belted for these offences (20 per cent to 3 per cent). It seems notable that the types of offences most frequently resulting in physical punishment are those that challenge adult authority.

Pupils were divided over the effectiveness of the physical punishment they had experienced: about a third felt it was mostly or always effective, about a quarter said it was sometimes effective and the rest (39 per cent) said not often or not at all.

Despite their opinions on whether they should or should not have been punished and whether or not they thought the punishment had been effective, most pupils reported intending to behave towards their own children in the same way that their parents had behaved towards them. The only substantial difference was that almost all of the pupils intended to use physical punishment for stealing (91 per cent compared with 57 per cent who reported having that experience) while fewer felt that the lesser offences including squabbling, warranted physical punishment as often as their parents had used it. (It should be noted that the relatively small number reporting being smacked for stealing may be due to the fact that most had either not stolen or had not been caught by their parents when stealing.)


Finally, a study by Blampied and Kahan (1992) examined the relative acceptability of various sanctions, including standing in a corner, loss of TV privileges, reprimands and hitting on the hand with a ruler, in a specific scenario. Overall, their sample of 201 Christchurch adults reported that physical punishment was the least acceptable of the options they were asked about. But although physical punishment was seen as relatively unacceptable, it was more acceptable at home compared with in a school situation.

In another article, Blampied (1993) reports that the study suggests that 'few people find corporal punishment effective, fair and generally acceptable and quite a large number find it cruel and risky'.

It is difficult to be sure how Blampied and Kahan's results can be compared with earlier studies on reported behaviour. The methodology used may have encouraged people to respond to one of the more rational alternatives in a way that real life does not. On the other hand, the Blampied and Kahan findings may suggest that the tide has at last turned and physical punishment is really being viewed as an undesirable parental response.


  • Blampied, N. (1993), 'Corporal Punishment', NZ Science Monthly, Vol.4, No.3, p.11.
  • Blampied, N. and Kahan, E. (1992), 'Acceptability of Alternative Punishments: A Community Survey', Behaviour Modification, Vol.16, pp.400-413.
  • Munro, S. (1982), Past Experiences, Future Intentions and Evaluation of Punishment as a Means of Controlling Behaviour by Fourth Form Secondary School pupils, Third year research project, Department of Psychology, University of Otago.
  • Ritchie, Jane (1981), 'Boys Will be Boys', paper presented to the Women's Studies Association Conference, Wellington.
  • Ritchie, J. and Ritchie, J. (1992), Violence in the Home, 2nd ed., Daphne Brasell.
  • Ritchie, Jane and Ritchie, James (1970), Child Rearing Patterns in NZ, AH and AW Reed.
  • Ritchie, Jane, (1979), Child Rearing Patterns: Further Studies, Psychology Research Series No 11, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand.