“No evidence that physical punishment changes children’s behaviour” says head of UNICEF CZ

The Ministry of Justice announced last week that it plans to enshrine the inadmissibility of physically punishing children in law. The proposed amendment to the country's Civil Code would not make hitting children illegal or impose penalties on parents for doing so, but is rather intended as a recommendation that, the ministry hopes, will change societal norms. But does it really stand a chance of doing so? To find out, I spoke to Pavla Gomba, director of UNICEF Czech Republic.

Pavla Gomba | Photo: Jan Bartoněk,  Czech Radio

“In many other countries, we see that the laws and regulations are an important declaration of what the society considers standard, and on the other hand, what kind of behaviour is considered unwanted. So I do believe this is an important positive step in the Czech Republic.”

I was surprised to see a readers’ poll on novinky.cz where out of around 25,000 respondents, 86 % said they did not agree with the move. Why do you think opposition to the idea is so high? Does this reflect the attitude of Czech society at large?

“Of course, this is a huge number of respondents, but we cannot say that the readers of novinky constitute a representative sample of Czech society.

“According to a poll that we conducted on a representative sample of children and young people last year, it turned out that 11 percent, let’s say every 10th child in the Czech Republic, experience some kind of violent behaviour at home.

“So we can say that this is probably still a widespread practice – maybe too wide – so it’s really important to increase awareness among Czech society and also address fears on the side of parents, grandparents, or caregivers about this new law.”

Are there any lasting effects on children of being physically punished – even if it’s only mild?

“This is a very interesting question. Physical punishment is one of the most intensely studied aspects of parenting, so there are many analyses and a lot of studies. Some of them have been published by the World Health Organisation.

“We do have a lot of evidence to say that there are several harmful effects, even for measures that are considered mild, including high reactivity to stress, overloading of the logical system, and changes to brain structure and function. And even for mild measures, we can say without any doubt that it does have very harmful effects on the parent-child relationship.

“And while we have a lot of evidence that this is not a good way of disciplining children, there is also no evidence that physical punishment changes the original unwanted behaviour of the child. I think the evidence is very clear.”

Is there any difference between physical punishment and physical abuse?

“Discipline, including corporal punishment, is about teaching rules and regulations to children and following up on the consequences, so the purpose is different. Abuse, on the other hand, is when you cross limits to get your way and hurt someone.

“But we can say that severe forms of corporal punishment, including kicking, biting, burning and so on, can also constitute child abuse.”

Physical punishment at school was not unusual in the mid-19th century | Photo: George Grukshank,  British Library,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0 1.0