A world without spanking

In Canada, you're allowed to hit your child. In Sweden, it's against the law. How does the difference affect parents and kids? John Hoffman investigates

It’s been a long, exhausting, frustrating shopping trip. Mom struggles to hold her squirming four-year-old by one hand while steering a loaded shopping cart with the other. “You stay with Mommy in the parking lot!” The boy breaks loose and bolts into the path of an oncoming car. Squeal of tires. It’s a close call, but the driver stops in time. Mom abandons her groceries, runs over, grabs her son by the arm and delivers a couple of swats to his rear end. Tears and screaming. Bystanders take it all in.

Embarrassing? Yup. Regrettable? Some would think so.

Illegal? Not in Canada. Even if someone reported this mom to authorities, her action is clearly within the legal bounds of acceptable parental force.

But in Sweden, the parking lot swat is against the law. Hitting a child for discipline has been unlawful in the land of Abba and Ikea since 1957, when legislators removed the section of Sweden’s Penal Code that permitted parents to use force to reprimand a child. In Canada, parents still have that right. It’s one of a number of defences to assault charges provided by the Criminal Code: Section 43 says parents can use “force by way of correction…[that] is reasonable under the circumstances.”

Anti-spanking activists have been trying to get Section 43 struck down for years without success. But while it lingers on the books, Canadian attitudes continue to evolve away from viewing spanking as a primary parenting tool. Moreover, our courts keep narrowing the legal definition of reasonable force (see Spanking and the law). So it seems likely that Canada will one day join the more than 20 nations, most of them in Europe, that have outlawed corporal punishment.

Section 43’s defenders have predicted that without such a defence, parents could be criminalized, not just for spankings but even, say, for forcibly taking a defiant child to his bedroom for a time out. To find out what it’s really like to live under a no-spank edict, let’s look at Sweden.

Section 43

On a cold Wednesday afternoon last March, I visited the baby and toddler room at the Kulturhuset, a large cultural centre in downtown Stockholm (yes, they have children’s rooms; in fact, kids get a whole floor). It was packed with relaxed mothers and fathers on parental leave, hanging out together; holding and feeding their babies and watching toddlers clump around pulling books off the shelves. In short, they looked an awful lot like us. The difference is that in a moment of provocation, you might be less likely to see a Swedish parent deliver one of those firm, but relative mild, swats to a well-cushioned bum.

According to the people I met in Sweden, this generation of parents just doesn’t think about spanking. It’s been 50 years since Sweden’s version of Section 43 was removed from the Penal Code, and almost 30 since the Swedish parliament passed an amendment, in 1979, to its Parent and Guardianship Code (akin to our provincial child protection legislation), expressly forbidding any form of corporal punishment. The intervening years witnessed a profound attitudinal shift away from spanking.

There was a time when Swedish parents spanked their children. A survey of Swedes born in the 1950s found that all had been subjected to corporal punishment at least once. A little more than a generation later, the picture was markedly different: Data from a longitudinal study of Swedes born in the 1980s found that 86 percent said they had never been physically punished by their parents. In a survey conducted in the mid-1990s, only 11 percent of Swedes expressed support for even mild forms of corporal punishment.

In contrast, a recent Canadian survey found that 42 percent of respondents not only condoned spanking, but said it was beneficial for a child’s development.

Cecilia Moen, a mother of one who grew up in both Sweden and Canada, says the issue for Swedish parents is not being worried about what will happen if they get caught smacking their child. It’s that they genuinely don’t want to do it. “Most people here [in Sweden] think it’s bad to physically punish a child, that it would be a sign of failure as a parent,” she says.

Moen, who lives near Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city, says child welfare workers focus on supporting parents, not on catching them breaking the law. “The first step is often to try to help the parents so that they can become better parents. My impression is that Canadian child welfare authorities are more prone than Swedish authorities to taking children from their parents.”

Moen’s perceptions are backed up by the research of Evelyn Khoo, a professor of social work at Umeå University in northern Sweden. Khoo, who was born and educated in Canada and spent 10 years working for the Children’s Aid Society in London, Ont., confirms that children are actually less likely to be removed from their homes in Sweden than in Canada. “In some cases, Swedish child welfare agencies may get involved with families earlier, but what they do is often seen as helpful,” says Khoo. “In general, there is less of a stigma around child welfare in Sweden.”

Khoo’s doctoral dissertation compared Swedish and Canadian child-welfare approaches by analyzing data from focus groups held with child welfare workers in Barrie, Ont., and Umeå, cities of similar size. Although Khoo noted similarities in the methods and attitudes of both groups, some of the differences were striking. For example, the Ontario child protection workers talked about approaching their cases with questions such as “What do we need to do to intervene to ensure the child is safe? Does the child need to be placed?” In contrast, one of the starting questions for the Swedish workers was “Does the family consent?” The Barrie social workers estimated that 10 to 15 percent of their cases involved the courts; for the Swedish workers, it was close to nil.

This hardly sounds like a state bent on seizing children from their parents for misdemeanour slaps and taps.

Lisa Hanes, a social worker with the social services department in Stockholm, can recall only one case of a parent going to jail for physically abusing a child, and that involved a pattern of abuse over several years. She sometimes works with parents who have hit or spanked their children, but says they are very seldom charged. “We work with the family first to teach them alternatives to physical punishment,” she says.

Corporal punishment ban

So the more you peel back the layers of Sweden’s treatment of children and parents, the less the corporal punishment ban looks like intrusion into family life and the more it looks like a small cog in a large machinery of supports for children and families. These supports include everything from the generous parental leave (close to 18 months in total), and ubiquitous, low-cost daycare we’ve heard about, to the recognition of children as citizens with full rights, including the right to cultural opportunities like those at the Kulturhuset.

Swedish kids are doing fine too. Their well-being is borne out in statistics (see The kids are all right) but it was also demonstrably visible to a British journalist who was one of my colleagues on my visit to Stockholm last spring. Sam Alexandroni had been dispatched by The New Statesman to find out why Swedish children were “so happy.” A UNICEF report had recently placed British children squarely at the bottom of the well-being scale, while Swedish kids were number two.

One of our excursions was to Bergtorpsskolan, a junior high school in a suburb of Stockholm. At one point, Alexandroni asked if we could take photographs of some students, so the principal asked a group of kids, who happened to be passing by, if they’d like to be in a photo. They responded enthusiastically and lined up along the wall, arms draped around each other, grinning and looking on top of the world. My British colleague was visibly stunned at their positive attitude and healthy glow. “I’ve never seen anything like that — the confidence, friendliness and good relationship with the principal — in any British school I’ve been in. They really did seem happier than British children.”

I could have shown him a similar scene at my son’s high school in Peterborough, Ont., but the point isn’t really which country’s children seem the happiest or who has the better child welfare system or the most progressive family policies. There are two real lessons from the Swedish experience. One is that it actually is possible to raise children without spanking them — as many Canadians know from experience. The other is that children’s well-being and safety from harm doesn’t just come from a law book. It comes from a broad and systematic effort to look after the needs of children and parents.

The kids are all right

If spanking is good for child development, as almost half of Canadians stated in a recent poll, one should be able to find evidence of poorly disciplined, out-of-control or otherwise messed-up children in a country where corporal punishment is not only outlawed, but vigorously discouraged. Sweden has its share of children’s problems, including mental health issues, child abuse and youth crime, but cross-national data shows that Swedish kids are doing better than children in most countries. A recent UNICEF report on child well-being in rich nations ranked Sweden second, just behind the Netherlands. Canada was 12th.

Here are some points of comparison:

Percentage of 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds who say they had been bullied in the past month: 15% (SWE) 36% (CAN)

Percentage of 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds who rate peers as kind and helpful: 76% (SWE) 63% (CAN)

Percentage of 11-, 13- and 15-year-olds who say they have been drunk two or more times: 16% (SWE) 20% (CAN)

Percentage of 15-year-olds who agreed with the statement “I feel awkward and left out of things.” 5% (SWE) 11% (CAN)

Deaths from injuries and accidents in children under 19 per 100,000: 7 (SWE) 15 (CAN)

Spanking and the law

In January 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which enshrines a parent’s right to spank for disciplinary purposes. However, the Court narrowed the definition of reasonable force, leaving us in the rather curious situation that, technically, it is illegal to hit a child under the age of two or over the age of 12, but legal to strike those in between, as long as you don’t hit them on the head or with an instrument such as a belt, ruler or paddle. The latest attempt to repeal Section 43 is a bill in the Canadian Senate, introduced by Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette. That bill has passed second reading. However, the odds that it will pass both houses are slim.