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Smacking children 'should be illegal'

A child psychologist backs a push by physicians to make smacking children a criminal offence, saying it lowers IQ, self esteem and "makes people more violent".

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A leading group of doctors from Australia and New Zealand is pushing to make it a criminal offence for parents to smack their children.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians will call for a legal amendment to give children the same protection from assault as others in the community.

The president of the college's paediatrics and child health division, Susan Moloney, said physical punishment could escalate to abuse. ''We know that a significant number of child homicides are a result of physical punishment which went wrong,'' she said.

Favours a firm voice:  Yvette Andronicus with son Charlie, 2, and daughter, Gigi, seven months.

Favours a firm voice: Yvette Andronicus with son Charlie, 2, and daughter, Gigi, seven months. Photo: Brianne Makin

Research shows it can lead to depression, anxiety, aggression, antisocial behaviour and substance abuse. In Australia it is legal for parents to use corporal punishment on children as long as it is ''reasonable''.

Yvette Andronicus from St Ives, who has two children, says a firm voice is the most effective discipline. ''I don't think smacking works because it doesn't teach the child anything about why the behaviour is wrong,'' she said. ''The naughty corner doesn't really work either.

''You're much better off sitting them down and talking to them about what they did, explaining why it's wrong.''

But Associate Professor Moloney said: ''If you hit your dog you could be arrested - but it's legal to hit your child.

''We protect children with legislation around pool fences and not smoking in cars, for example. This is legislation which would protect children from physical punishment.'' The college, which represents 14,000 physicians, will run a campaign to educate parents about alternatives to smacking. It will discuss the proposal with the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect and seek advice from legal experts.

Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg does not advocate smacking but believes legislation would be unworkable. ''How could you reasonably monitor and enforce such a law? What are we going to do? Have the smacking police?'' he said.

Family therapist Michael Hawton said many good parents smacked simply because they did not know the alternatives.

''The problem is many parents simply don't know what to do or what the alternatives are so they become frustrated and they smack or they yell,'' he said.

Justin Coulson, a father of five children aged three to 13 and an author on parenting, said education would be vital to any reform.

''I am in favour of legislation but I don't think it's enforceable … I would rather see resources going into education,'' he said.

Dr Coulson's research shows a high degree of acceptance for smacking in Australia, though bans in 33 countries have lowered child abuse rates and crime in general.

Roslyn Phillips, research officer with the Christian group FamilyVoice Australia, rejected claims that smacking was harmful, saying it was instructive for small children.

''Reasonable discipline teaches very young children who have no understanding of logic where the boundaries are,'' she said. ''A short physical action indicates 'no'. An abusive action by parents is a crime but a smack … I think most people know the difference.''