Back in the states, a debate about corporal punishment – basically, physically punishing children by doing things such as spanking them or hitting them with a belt – has been raging for years.
No countries in North America ban physical punishment of children, but there’s a perennial discussion in the U.S. about the fine line between discipline and abuse. It flared again last week after millions worldwide saw a seven-minute YouTube video from 2004 that showed a Texas judge cursing at his teenage daughter and beating her with a belt.
Shocking as the video may be, the public outcry was not as severe as some would think. Not punishing children physically raises weak children, some argue. If you never spank a child, they say, the child will grow up with a spoiled sense of entitlement and be lazy, unproductive members of society that leech off the government.
Apparently they’ve never been to Sweden.
With an average annual per capita income higher than the U.S. according to some reports, the Swedes must be doing something right. The Human Development Index (HDI) of Sweden is higher than the U.S., and Swedes on average live 2.7 years longer than their American counterparts (81.07 years compared to 78.37 years, according to the CIA World Factbook). If the Swedes were so lazy and unproductive, they would not be making so much money or living so long.
And guess what? Corporal punishment of children in Sweden is illegal.
It’s an idea that’s been gaining a lot of attention lately. On Nov. 9, CNN ran a story lauding the Swedish system, praising it for recognizing the importance of children’s rights.
The praise is well-deserved.
In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to ban physical punishment of children. Since then, 30 other countries have passed similar bans on corporal punishment at home and in schools, according to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children.
The idea of children’s rights is nothing new in Sweden. In the CNN article, it was stated that about half of Swedish children were smacked in the 1970s – before the ban on corporal punishment – Save the Children Sweden reported. In the 2000s, the number fell to “just a few per cent.”
The 1979 was the result of several decades of progressively stricter legislation. The first description of children’s human rights in Sweden appeared in the 1920s, and a ban on smacking in schools was passed in 1958. Public attitudes continued to shift in the 1970s and finally, in 1977, the Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) created a committee to examine children’s rights. Before the new law was passed, the ban was explained in pamphlets and in printed information on milk cartons throughout Sweden.
The result of the Riksdag’s work was Chapter 6, Section 1 of the Swedish Children and Parents Code: “Children are entitled to care, security and a good upbringing. Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.”
Although the law technically carries no penalties, adults who hit a child can expect a swift response from Swedish social services.
“The police are not going to say, ‘This parent should be charged,’” Joan Durrant, a family social sciences professor at Canada’s University of Manitoba who has studied the effects of Sweden’s ban for decades, was quoted as saying in the CNN article. “The police will say, ‘What you did is not OK, I understand why it happened, but you need to know that’s against the law, and here are the supports available to you.’”
Those supports might include things such as access to parenting support groups, child development information, or nurses that can help offer advice to parents on alternatives to corporal punishment. In other words, if parents are hitting their children, it might mean they’ve lost control, and could benefit from learning about other options that are available to them that don’t involve physical punishment.
There could be a link between the Texas video and some Americans’ attitudes towards punishing their children. The CNN article pointed out that the U.S. and Somalia are the only two countries that have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty that recognizes the human rights of people younger than 18. Sweden was one of the first countries to ratify it.
Regardless of cultural predicators, what happened in Texas was shocking, to be sure. But in Sweden, such a horror would be unspeakable.
Sure, the Swedes don’t usually spank their kids. And sure, corporal punishment of children is illegal. But guess what? Given the prosperity and openness of Sweden, they’ve turned out all right.