Thirty years ago, Sweden became the first nation in the world to prohibit all corporal punishment of children. This radical step pioneered the way for many more countries to follow suit.
The Swedish anti-spanking law has influenced attitudes around the world. Photo: Ulf Huett Nilsson/Johnér
Spanking, slapping, smacking, pinching, hair-pulling, whipping, paddling — corporal punishment by any name or means is prohibited, at home and in school, and severely frowned upon.
This has not always been the case. Until the 1960s, nine out of ten preschool children were spanked at home. Slowly, though, more and more parents voluntarily refrained from its use and corporal punishment was prohibited throughout the educational system in 1958.
A world first ban
During the 1970s, the debate on child abuse intensified. Staffan Janson, pediatrician and professor of public health in the Swedish city of Karlstad, explains that attitudes had changed already before the new law came: “When parliament voted on the issue in 1979, two-thirds of parents were already in favor of a legal injunction.”
On March 15, 1979, the members of the Swedish parliament were the first in the world to vote for the prohibition. The law was implemented on July 1, 1979.
The measure cemented popular attitudes. In the 1980s only a third of children were spanked, and in the 1990s that number had shrunk to about a fifth, according to Janson. He recently had his findings on violence against children published in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet.
Sweden’s neighbors Finland and Norway enacted similar laws in 1983 and 1987. Austria followed in 1989. Then the pace picked up, and as of today, 24 countries have taken the same step, and another 23 have stated that they will, too.
In other words, what was widely viewed as a radical, very Swedish initiative in the 1970s has now become an official or unofficial norm in about 50 of the world’s 203 nations.
A democratic development
Why was Sweden ahead of other nations?
“Economic development and the institution of paid parental leave decreased parents’ stress level. Technological inventions produced safer homes, lessening the need for harsh discipline,” Janson says. “Also, since more children attended preschool, it became increasingly difficult for abusive parents to hide their children’s bruises.
“But most importantly, the continuous growth of a democratic, egalitarian ideal meant that more and more Swedes felt that all people — children too — should enjoy equal protection from violence,” he says.
The general belief in Sweden is that children can be disciplined without corporal punishment. Photo: Cleis Nordfjell/Save the Children
Monika Sarajärvi coordinates the Swedish Save the Children’s European Program. “We are often asked by other nations about the prohibition, simply because we have the longest experience of it,” she says.
“Parents often ask us: ‘But if you do not beat them, how do you discipline your children?’ We maintain that you can get very far with words and that the child-parent relationship should not have to regress into violence. Usually people become very interested in alternative methods.”
Every now and then, Sarajärvi has to counter serious misunderstandings about the law.
“People may say that ‘juvenile delinquency has increased rapidly’ in Sweden since 1979, that ‘many parents are sent to jail for spanking,’ and that ‘child murders have increased,’ none of which is true,” she says.
Getting the facts straight
According to Janson, the number of murdered children in Sweden is in reality very low, perhaps the lowest in the world. There is no evidence that the abolition of corporal punishment leads to higher crime rates. And parents are not jailed for a single spanking, just as adults are not imprisoned for slapping another adult once.
Research also shows that serious child abuse decreases when countries abolish corporal punishment.
“Small children below the age of five or six lack the mental capacity to comprehend the reasons for a spanking,” Janson says. “Nor can they remember that reason from one time to another. In the absence of a ban, then, parents are tempted to use harsher and harsher means, which in a stressful situation may turn into brutal child abuse.”
Is all well in Sweden, then? Hardly. Corporal punishment has not disappeared. About five percent of all children are still spanked, despite the ban.
Jenny Ingårda, project coordinator at the children’s helpline BRIS (Children’s Rights in Society), says: “I usually point out that roughly 80 percent of kids are reasonably happy and well, about 15 percent are less fortunate, while 5 percent suffer a catastrophic existence in families marred by drugs and violence.”
Some children are severely beaten as well as psychologically abused. “They tend to be taught that if they tell on the spanking parent, ‘Daddy will end up in jail,’” Ingårda says.
“Still, without the ban on corporal punishment, parents’ boundaries would be much vaguer and violence more common,” she says. “Decreasing violence against children is a slow process, but we are moving ahead.”
(Read more about BRIS’s fantastic work on the right.)
Jonas Fredén is a freelance journalist. He has worked for Finanstidningen (Finance news), Sveriges Radio, Sweden’s public service radio broadcaster, and the daily Dagens Nyheter.
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