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Exploring Glasgow parents’ views of the Equal Protection from Assault Bill

13 May 2019

Christopher Sweeney, health visitor, and public health lecturer William Spence used mixed methods research to explore the views of Glasgow parents on the proposed Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill in order to inform the work of health visitors and other professionals working with families.

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Introduction


In October 2017, the Scottish Government announced plans for Scotland to become the first UK country to give children the same protection from violence as adults. The proposal to remove the current defence of ‘justifiable assault’ in relation to children under 17 years of age was made by former police officer and current member of the Scottish parliament John Finnie (Scottish Parliament, 2017a). The success of this defence is dependent on the court’s consideration of several criteria including characteristics of the child, effect of the punishment, and the nature, reason, duration, and frequency of punishment (Criminal Justice Scotland Act, 2003). While previous studies on physical punishment of children have sought the opinion of the general public in Scotland (Scottish Parliament 2017b, ComRes 2017), there is no published research explicitly exploring Scottish parents’ views.


Arguments supporting the ban on smacking have been mounting. The United Nations set an influential parameter directing that, ‘No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment’ (UNCRC, 2006: 10). A systematic review of the evidence around the physical punishment of children identified an association between smacking and increased childhood aggression, anti-social behaviour, depressive symptoms, anxiety, and the risk of escalation into serious abuse (Heilmann et al, 2015). Childhood physical abuse has been found in 28% of study participants and such Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) were also found in clusters, with almost 40% of respondents reporting two or more ACEs (SAMHSA, 2018). The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study found that ACEs were associated with health and social problems across the life course (CDCP, 2014).


A growing trend towards outlawing of smacking is evident, with 110 countries having already outlawed physical punishment or made a commitment to doing so (figure 1).


Research shows that children under the age of five are most at risk of being smacked (Jones and Smith, 2008; Anderson et al, 2002).The Anderson et al. study was undertaken in 2002 to provide the Scottish Government with information on parents’ attitudes and behaviour at a time when change to the law on physical punishment was being considered. With parents of this group more likely to seek parenting advice from their health visitor than from any other professional (Anderson et al, 2002), it is clear health visitors will play a central role in supporting parents through changes to legislation. 


While the Scottish Government recognises the role of health visitors in supporting and offering parental advice (Scottish Government, 2012), the health visiting service is not mentioned in the proposed bill, despite reference to potential implications and need for resources from courts, police, and social services (Scottish Parliament, 2017a). The Welsh Government has recently proposed that Wales becomes the second country in the UK to outlaw physical punishment (Welsh Government, 2018) and there have been calls for England and Northern Ireland to follow (Brooks, 2017), ensuring that this research is relevant to health visiting practice across the UK.

 
Given the fast-moving UK political agenda, it seemed timely to ascertain the views of Scottish parents on this proposed legislative change and the research reported here sought to do this.

 
Definitions 


The use of the term “smacking ban” by the media has attracted some controversy, with children’s charities pointing out that the term is not technically correct as a new offence is not proposed to outlaw physical punishment, but it is proposed that the defence of “justifiable assault” be removed from law (Children 1st, 2017). The term “smacking ban” was used in this study as it reflected the mainstream (BBC, 2017) and political media (Davidson, 2017) representation of the proposed Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill (Scottish Parliament, 2017a). 

 

Study aims/purpose:


This research sought to explore the views of Glasgow parents on the proposed Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill to inform the work of health visitors and other professionals working with families. The research was submitted as part of a Master of Public Health degree at the University of Glasgow with ethical approval granted by the university ethics committee. 
 

Method


A mixed methods approach was utilised. A focus group was conducted in May 2018 with Glasgow mothers with at least one child of primary school age or below. The moderator of this group introduced the BBC News headline, ‘Smacking children is to be banned in Scotland. The move will outlaw the physical punishment of children’ (BBC, 2017). A discussion ensued with minimal input required from the moderator. The interview was transcribed, and a thematic analysis conducted using Braun and Clarke’s 2006 checklist (Braun and Clarke, 2013) Seven themes were identified (figure 2). 


An online questionnaire consisting of 12 Likert-style statements was developed, nine of which aligned with one of the themes from the thematic analysis. A further three Likert statements were adapted from a previous study (Anderson et al, 2002) to allow for comparisons of attitudes. The Likert scale offered the following response options: strongly agree, agree, neither disagree nor agree, disagree, strongly disagree, and not applicable.  

Demographic data, gender, age of youngest child, age of respondent, number of children, and postcode were collected over a three-week period. The survey was open during June 2018, shared across Glasgow parenting and community groups via social media posting, and descriptive statistics of results are presented. Odds ratios (OR) were calculated to measure the association between properties of interest. An OR of one indicates that a property of interest did not affect the occurrence of another property of interest and ORs above and below this figure indicate higher and lower odds respectively that one property will be present when the other is present. A positive OR is not evidence that one property caused the other. Pseudonyms are used in the presentation of verbatim quotations and these in turn are used to illustrate the content of themes.

 

Results and Discussion


There were 179 responses to the online survey and of the respondents, 78% (n=138) were female, and almost half the sample (47%, n=102) were parents of one child only. The majority (57%, n=102) were parents of at least one child under five, the age range in which children in Scotland are most likely to be smacked (Jones and Smith, 2008; Anderson et al, 2002). Whilst half (54%) of Scottish mothers aged 30 or over at the birth of their first child (Information Services Division, 2018), 84% (n=149) of survey respondents were aged 30-49.
 

A ‘smacking ban’ will reduce violence towards children


Of the 23% (n=41) of the sample who use physical punishment, two thirds (66%, n=27) indicated that a ban would result in them smacking less or discontinuing altogether (figure 3). This suggests that the proposed legislation will lead to a reduction in violence towards children, although will fall short of stopping physical punishment completely. Whilst eight percent (n=14) claimed a ban would make no difference and that they would continue to smack if they felt it was necessary, 27% of respondents in a previous survey that asked parents whether a ban on smacking children under three would impact their behaviour stated that it would have no impact (Anderson et al, 2002). This suggests that parents are now more receptive to legislation outlawing physical punishment than they were in 2002. 
 

Differences between social classes


The Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation (SIMD) was used here and is a relative measure of deprivation across geographical areas of Scotland (Scottish Government, 2016a). It combines seven aspects of deprivation: income, employment, health, education, geographic access to services, crime, and housing. Each of these reflects a number of variables and, for example, employment’s contribution to the score for each area is calculated by considering the number of people in each area claiming unemployment benefits such as employment and support allowance, (Scottish Government, 2016b).    


Respondents were fairly evenly distributed across SIMD quintiles (figure 4). Odds ratios were used to compare those living in the most (SIMD 1) and least (SIMD 5) deprived postcode areas. There was no difference between those in SIMD quintiles one and five in the belief that smacking is necessary (OR 1). Respondents from the most deprived quintile (SIMD 1) were more likely to report smacking (OR 1.24), and less likely to support the proposed legislation (OR 0.64) than those in the least deprived (SIMD 5), however this difference was not statistically significant. In 2002, Scottish parents who identified as being in ‘skilled and unskilled manual occupations’ were significantly more likely to report that they had smacked their child in the previous year compared to those in the ‘professional, managerial, and clerical’ group (58% compared to 45%) (Anderson et al, 2002). A prospective longitudinal study in New Zealand identified socioeconomic class as one of four main variables that predicted physical punishment (b=0.17, p=0.02) (Woodward et al, 2007). However, these four variables only explained 21% of variance, indicating that reasons for parents’ use of physical punishment are complex and multi-faceted.  

 
There is a wide range of evidence showing that parents use smacking as a result of frustration or anger (Bunting et al 2008, Department for Children Schools and Families, 2007; Anderson et al 2002), and parents often reported feelings of guilt and regret afterwards (Brownlie and Alderson, 2006). This may explain the association between lower socioeconomic status and higher prevalence of smacking where living a less advantaged lifestyle can lead to experience of higher levels of perceived stress (Alegren et al, 2018).  


While most parents here supported a ‘smacking ban’, focus group participants had mixed feelings on the legislation, ranging from agreement due to the potential to protect children from severe violence:

Megan: ‘I just think it's, yeah it should be banned to save the kids who are getting a full on beating’

To opposition, based on the belief that parents should have freedom to choose how to discipline their children:


Salimatu: ‘I just think that we should be left to, let alone, and let us parent our children the way we need to.’

One parent supported the proposed legislation in principle, but believed that it would have little impact: 

Fatima: ‘I get why they're implementing it, but I think the target group that they're aiming for... It's not gonna be any different than what it is now because obviously they're gonna go home and if they want to smack their kids they're still going to do it.’

The majority of the sample (60%, n=108) agreed with the Scottish Government’s plans to remove the ‘justifiable assault’ defence (figure 5). The percentage of individuals indicating disagreement in this survey (26%, n=45) was similar to that found in the Equal Protection from Assault Consultation (Scottish Parliament, 2017b) where 25% (n=166) disagreed with a change in the law. 

Following the announcement of the proposed Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill, results of a survey achieved wide media exposure by reporting that 74% of 1,010 members of the public disagreed with the legislation (Davidson, 2017; Martin, 2017; Peterkin, 2017). According to ComRes (2017) this survey was representative of the general public, however it could be argued that as most who took part had no children aged 18 or younger (69%, n=697) and 37% (n=373) were aged 55 or over, it was not representative of parents.

 

Smacking is not necessary


Focus group discussion included the necessity of physical punishment, with some participants believing it was necessary when other parenting strategies had failed.
 

Megan: ‘…there are so many kids that need (smacking) … where time out doesn’t work’

While some discussed whether individuals who supported the legislation may lack insight into the challenges of parenting.


Salimatu: ‘…those people might not have children, so they might not know…’
Miriam: ‘Know what children are like!’

Yet, most of the sample (70%, n=125) disagreed that it was sometimes necessary to smack a child and the same proportion (70%, n=126) did not believe that ‘smacking works' (figure 5). Belief in the necessity of smacking was the strongest indicator that a parent would disagree with the proposed legislation. Parents who disagreed with the legislation were 83 times more likely to believe smacking is necessary compared to those who agreed with a ban (OR 83.15). Clearly, some parents continue to believe smacking is necessary and support may be required for them to develop alternative strategies for managing children’s behaviour.  

NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde (2018) and The Scottish Government (2012) in its Parenting Strategy, promote positive parenting (Triple P) as one such alternative, although this has received criticism due to lack of evidence on its sustained effectiveness (Wilson et al, 2012). There is a need to ensure that information on alternatives to smacking reaches fathers, as mothers here were significantly more likely to have heard of positive parenting (OR 6.27). 

 

There is a need to communicate legislative changes to parents

There was confusion among focus group members about current law in Scotland:

Megan: ‘… aren’t you already allowed a smack on the hand, or you know something like that as opposed to like a big smack across the face, I know that’s not allowed.’ 

Fatima: ‘Just now, well what I thought the rule was, was, you’re allowed to smack your children in your own home, you’re not allowed to smack them in public, em, I might have made that up, but I’m sure that I’ve heard that somewhere.’ 

Mary: ‘No, you kin, you kin smack your own, smack your child in your own home, but outside your no’ allowed because you can get done [arrested by police].’

This uncertainty was also apparent in the survey, where only 37% (n=66) agreed that they understood current law and definitions related to smacking (figure 5). The Scottish Government can look to other countries for inspiration on how to deliver an information campaign, with novel approaches used elsewhere e.g. Sweden had information printed on milk bottles to encourage discussion amongst families (Boyson, 2011). 

 

Children’s rights


The term ‘human-becomings’ has been coined by Phillips and Alderson (2003) to describe the view held by supporters of physical punishment that as children are not fully developed adults, parental rights should take precedence. This was apparent in the focus group, with a participant sharing her view that children’s rights impede her ability to parent:
 

Miriam: ‘Because almost everything, like if I put them on a room on their own, that’s probably going to be against their human rights, if I don’t give them dinner… you know, anything you do as a parent as a form of discipline, that’s probably against their [rights]… there’s just this sort of scope of they’ve got a lot of power.’

Miriam suggested that children’s rights impact the parent-child power dynamic. Ultimately, instead of benefiting children, children’s rights were seen to have a negative impact:

Miriam: ‘It’s just this sort of, give your child everything, and I’m sorry, I think we’re raising a generation of spoiled brats, that’s what.’


Whilst entitlement to certain protections is the definition of human rights (United Nations, 2014), Miriam believed children are not ‘Intellectually mature enough to [be] able to make a rational decision’ and needed to learn that when older they were, ‘Not going to be entitled to something just because [they were] a human being’.

As seen in Miriam’s case, some parents believed that children’s rights are eroding parental rights, and that smacking can be used to ensure parents maintain control in the child-parent relationship. Only 9% (n=17) of survey respondents believed that children had too many rights (figure 5). However, those who held this belief were almost 29 times more likely to believe smacking to be necessary, compared to those who disagreed (OR 28.75). It may be that some parents disagree with the legislation due to the belief it will remove a means of ensuring the parent holds power and maintains control in the parent-child relationship. This position contrasted with the human rights perspective on corporal punishment of children. The human rights approach underpins the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990, Article 19) where governments – almost all members of the United Nations - are required, ‘To protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.’

 

The health visitor role


The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC, 2004) states that health visitors must be skilled at recognising children at risk of violence, supporting parents to build confidence and coping skills, and using their knowledge of the community to ensure parents can access support from local community groups. As evidenced-based practitioners (NMC, 2004) specialist community public health nurses (SCPHNs) need to recognise the large body of international evidence which links physical punishment of children with negative outcomes as detailed in Heilmann’s (2015) systematic review. Integral to the SCPHN role is the identification and prevention of childhood abuse in addition to the minimisation of abuse risk, including violence (NMC, 2004). The proposed legislative changes that will lead to a ban on the physical punishment of children is entirely consistent with this. The contribution to policy development is an important part of the SCPHN role (NMC, 2004) and SCPHNs elsewhere in the UK are well placed to contribute to this call for legislation outlawing physical punishment of children. 


There will also be a need to ensure health visitors and other professionals who work with children and families receive adequate training around the change in the law. This will prove to be a significant challenge, as, despite extensive information campaigns in countries which have removed the defence of physical punishment, many professionals who work with children remain confused about legislation (Lawrence and Smith, 2009).
Although the relationship between deprivation and smacking was not statistically significant in this study, previous research has identified an association between reported use of physical punishment by parents and low socioeconomic status (Woodward et al, 2007; Anderson 2002). SCPHN’s must recognise that parents living in areas of deprivation may require additional support either to utilise alternatives such as positive parenting, or to strengthen individual capacity and resilience through adopting coping strategies to avoid lashing out and smacking as a result of frustration.

Strengths and Limitations


Using qualitative research to inform development of questionnaire items ensured survey relevance. The timeliness of this study is a strength as there is currently no published research exploring parental views of the proposed Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill, although previous research has sought the public’s views of the proposals.  


Given the trend away from physical punishment of children, this study may act as a starting point for future UK research exploring the impact of any legislation outlawing physical punishment. 


Limitations of the study include the potential non-response bias often found in online surveys (Fricker, 2017). Due to the relatively small sample size, many of the odds ratios did not meet the criteria for statistical significance. The all-female focus group, and small number of fathers who participated in the online survey meant fathers’ opinions were not well represented. 

 

Conclusion


This research has shown that many parents in Scotland support legislation to outlaw physical punishment of children in Scotland and believe smacking to be unnecessary. Although 8% of the sample reported smacking their children and these individuals reported that they would continue to do so if legislation was passed, two-thirds of those who smack shared that a change in the law would lead to them either smacking less or stopping altogether. While the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill is unlikely to achieve its aim of protecting all children from threat of physical punishment, this research suggests that the bill will lead to an immediate reduction in violence towards children in Scotland.


There will be a need to inform parents of the law change and offer support related to accessing alternatives to physical punishment such as the positive parenting programme. This will be a considerable challenge as this research shows that only a minority of parents believe the current law on smacking is clear, and strategies such as the positive parenting programme are failing to reach fathers. 


While the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill recognises that additional resources will be required following its implementation, it fails to mention the health visiting service, despite evidence that health visiting teams are best placed to support parents with childhood behaviour and parenting strategies. In order for the bill to achieve the aim of reducing violence towards children, there is a need for the government to recognise the fundamental role health visitors will play in supporting parents to use alternatives to smacking, helping parents adopt coping strategies to avoid smacking out of frustration, and understand the potential harm caused to children because of physical punishment. Therefore, for the bill to achieve success, there is a need to provide health visiting teams with appropriate resources and training to support parents during the legislative change. 
 

Figures and tables


Figure 1: Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. November 2018. Retrieved from: https://endcorporalpunishment.org/global-progress/   

Figure 2. Focus group themes.

No. 

Themes identified

1

Necessity of physical punishment

2

Parents right to discipline

3

What is “allowed” (parenting within a framework set by law)

4

Parental experience of professionals

5

Fear of being judged “a bad parent” 

6

Parenting is being made more difficult

7

Meeting Children’s rights

 

 

Figure 3. Anticipated effect of a smacking ban on behaviour of parents who use physical punishment

figure_3.png

 

Figure 4. Respondents by SIMD


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Figure 5. Survey responses (n=179)

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References 

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