Defining moments # 6

How Sweden became the first country in the world to ban corporal punishment

4:20 min

It's now been over 35 years since the Swedish parliament voted in favour of the country's both hailed and criticized ban on corporal punishment in the home.

Over the years, it has become a cornerstone for parents in Sweden and today smacking children is something that is severely frowned upon here, but it wasn't always like that. In fact, when the decision to adopt the law came in the late 1970's it got mixed reactions, says Emma Kristensen, a research specialist with the children's rights organisation Bris.

"It was very controversial both internationally and within Sweden. It was not one of those things where there was a consensus and everyone was in agreement, you've got to remember that it was a very political decade. A lot of the arguments against the ban said that government policies wouldn't affect the family sphere, and those are the same arguments that are used today in countries that have not yet adopted this ban," says Kristensen.

The ban made headlines all over the world when it was first introduced. Swedish Radio's correspondent in Paris at the time says that she remembers reading headlines like 'The Swedes have gone mad' and 'The government takes charge of parenting in Sweden'

But despite a lot of early criticism and scepticism from other countries, many have since followed suit and introduced similar bans. Finland was the first country after Sweden to abolish corporal punishment in the home, and a few years later Norway and Austria adopted similar laws. As of today, 46 countries prohibit parents from smacking their children.

But why was Sweden first?

Emma Kristensen says that there are many ways to explain that, but one thing that helped pave the way for the ban was a 1971 murder case where a 3-year-old girl was beaten to death by her stepfather. The case shook the general public and preventing child abuse became a political hot topic for years to come. The murder case also became the starting point for several children's rights organisations in Sweden, who then started lobbying for a ban.

But Kristensen also says that Swedes at the time had a very strong belief in political regulation and believed that legislation really could make a difference.

"We have a tradition of trusting the government in terms of policies for the common good, and the general public have come to accept imposed regulations on things like children and family values. The ban of corporal punishment or child abuse is one example of that and our broad family insurance policies another, which regulates many aspects of parenting and family life for the average Swede," Kristensen says.

The ban itself, however, lacks legal teeth. Authorities are required to file a report with the Social Services if they believe that a child is being smacked or abused by his or her parents, and that might cause the family to lose custody of their child, but you can't go to jail for slapping your child unless it qualifies as domestic violence or assault.

But, as Kristensen points out, the ban was not intended to put parents away, but to change public opinion, and she says that the ban has done just that.

"The law has had a very strong normalizing effect in changing public opinion. An example of that is that a majority was in favour of corporal punishment in the 1960's but in the 1990's that number was down to 11 percent. A more recent poll shows that over 90 percent of Swedish parents are against corporal punishment, so the law has changed our attitudes. Having said that, we still have a big problem with child abuse in Sweden. We've had the law for over 35 years but still thousands of children are exposed to violence in Sweden every year," she says.