Sweden just banned corporal punishment. Should America be next?

Korin Miller

In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to ban corporal punishment of kids. Now, senior officials in the country say the law isn’t strict enough — and they want to change that.

Although the law is still in effect, most parents who slap, spank, or beat their children in Sweden usually get away with it, say Anna Karin Hildingson Boqvist, interim ombudsman for children, and Anita Wickström, who led an inquiry on children’s rights, in a new opinion piece in the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, according to The Local Se.

Parents who use violence against their children are subject to Sweden’s penal code, which says that if the act causes pain or leads to bodily harm, they face the same punishment as those who assault adults. But Boqvist and Wickström say these parents usually end up not being punished.

“Violence against children does not always cause visible injuries, and in these cases — especially in the absence of witnesses — the child’s ability to describe pain becomes crucial to whether or not it can be considered an assault and criminal offense,” they wrote. “In practice, the law demands that children be able to describe pain in the same way as adults.”

The authors urge the Swedish government to write new laws that would eliminate the pain reporting aspect. Specifically, they’re calling for a rule in which “the violence is not required to have caused pain. It should focus on violence exercised by parents or caregivers.”

Experts say the law could also be a good idea for other countries, including the U.S. “I totally agree with this,” Gina Posner, MD, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

Sweden has been a “frontrunner” for laws involving negative behavior and bullying, Robert Keder, MD, a pediatrician who specializes in developmental behavior at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. But he admits that this kind of law is “a challenge because you’re trying to legislate a behavior.”

Currently in the U.S., child abuse, which generally involves using a closed fist or item to injure a child, is illegal, but corporal punishment, which includes slapping or spanking, is not, Keder says. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly discourages parents from using corporal punishment, saying it has “limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects.”

When a child is slapped or hit for punishment, it teaches the child that violence is the way to solve problems and shift behaviors, Mayra Mendez, PhD, LMFT, a licensed psychotherapist and program coordinator for intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health services at Providence Saint John’s Child and Family Development Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “They also get a message that they are pretty much not worthy of being talked to or interacted with in a way that is respectful,” she says.

Using corporal punishment to discipline a child can also provoke anxiety and anger that damages the parent-child relationship, licensed clinical psychologist John Mayer, PhD, author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Not only that, it bypasses a teaching aspect of discipline, making it more likely that the child will do the same behavior again, he says.

When a child misbehaves, it’s much better to use redirectional and educational strategies, Keder says. “The first and most important thing is to use praise to promote positive behaviors,” he says. So, if your children tend to squirm a lot, praising them when they do sit still can go a long way toward reinforcing that behavior.

If the child is doing something that’s irritating but not problematic or attention-seeking, like jumping on the bed, he recommends suggesting a preferred substitute, like asking them to help you in the kitchen. If they’re doing an attention-seeking behavior, just ignore them — that should make it stop, Keder says.

And if the child is doing something intentionally wrong or risky, use the words “no” and “stop,” along with a negative consequence, he says. For younger children, a time-out is most effective, while losing a privilege like cellphone use can be effective for teenagers.

Ultimately, experts say it’s a good idea for all countries to effectively ban corporal punishment of children. “The bottom line is that these physical methods are weak,” Mayer says. “Banning such techniques gives a strong, loud, and clear message to parents that there are other, better techniques.”

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