NI Public Supports Law Change to Protect Children from Physical Punishment

22 March 2017 News

A recent survey commissioned by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People has found that views about physical punishment are changing, with the majority of people in Northern Ireland now supporting children being legally protected from hitting, smacking and assault.

The survey carried out by Kantar Millward Brown found 63% of the public would support the move to protect children, this rose to 77% amongst 18-24 year olds. This indicates an increase on previous similar research[i] where around 30% of people supported a change in the law.

Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People said,

“Our survey shows how society’s views are continuing to change about the protection of children from physical punishment.

“Parents have the toughest and yet most rewarding job and there is no manual, but for too long now parents have been given mixed messages about how to effectively discipline their children.

“Updating our laws would give clarity to parents, who when at their most stressed, could be supported to deal with challenging situations.”

The law in Northern Ireland allows the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ for parents who physically punish their child. The survey found that 67% of the public did not know that the law here allows for this.

The Commissioner continued, “We now know a lot more about the damaging effects physical punishment has on children’s health and development, through adolescence and into adulthood. We did not have this information available to us even 5 years ago and we cannot now ignore this evidence.”

Only 18% of parents felt physical punishment was an acceptable form of discipline. This is a large decrease from previous research which reported 50% and 36%[ii] of parents who thought it was acceptable.

In addition, evidence also shows that the public do not think this type of discipline works. 70% of the survey respondents believe positive parenting, such as withdrawal of treats and entertainment, grounding and time out, is more effective than hitting. This rose to 76% when we asked parents.

“If something does not work we need to find alternatives – and it is unacceptable that government has not sustained efforts to provide parents in Northern Ireland with support on ‘positive parenting’. 80% of parents in our survey either couldn’t remember receiving or didn’t receive information about positive parenting. It’s significant that those who did were more likely to support a change in law to protect children” said Koulla.

“Removing the defence of reasonable chastisement would allow Northern Ireland to join with 52 countries around the world which have moved to protect children from violence. Evidence suggests that protecting children has not led to increased prosecutions as feared by some. Rather, equal protection for children in the law should result in clearer guidance and better support for parents and families.”

The Commissioner concluded, “100 years ago, it was legal for men to hit their wife, pet and child. We have made positive moves on abuse and violence against adults in their homes but we have yet to move to make this type of assault on children illegal. The vulnerability of children requires more, not less protection from any form of assault.

“We have nothing to fear and everything to gain from a change in the law, it will be about applying a law already in place for adults to children, a law that our authorities already know and work within.

“Government must protect children from assault by giving them more not less protection in the law – they deserve equal protection with adults. Government also needs to renew its efforts to provide parents in Northern Ireland with more support on ‘positive parenting'”


Notes to Editors

  • For more information and to bid for interviews, please contact Patrice Morris, Communications Officer at, 028 9031 1616, mobile – 07917 544 177.
  • The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People was established in 2003 by the Assembly and Parliament to: “safeguard and promote the rights and best interests of children and young people”.

The Survey

  • NICCY commissioned KantarMilwardBrown to survey a representative sample of adults about the physical punishment of children. Adults were asked about awareness of the current law on physical punishment; views on legal reform; attitudes to different forms of discipline and parents were asked about access to positive parenting information.
  • The survey was conducted during November and December 2016 and included a boosted sample of parents or guardians of children under 18 years. Over 1,500 adults took part in the survey[iii]


[i] Regional Child Protection Committee (RCPC) and NSPCC (2009) Public attitudes towards child protection in Northern Ireland 2008: Technical Report, RCPC and NSPCC. NSPCC also conducted surveys in 2000 and 2003 and reported on these in Bunting L. (2003) Views on Physical Discipline: The Finding from Three Surveys. Belfast: NSPCC. Results ranged from 29 – 32% of the population who supported a change in the law to protect children

[ii] The question was used by NSPCC in 2000 and NISRA in 2001 and reported in Bunting L. (2003) Views on Physical Discipline: The Finding from Three Surveys. Belfast: NSPCC.

[iii] The sample total was 1,549 adults. 899 parents were interviewed which was then down-weighted to 494 to ensure the sample was representative of the adult population.