9 out of 10 children still face a thrashing

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PARENTS are beating their children as often as they did two decades ago, despite the abolition of corporal punishment in schools and almost unanimous disapproval of physical punishment among child-care experts.

They do not stop at smackings and beltings. Foul-mouthed children are still being made to wash their mouths out with salt and soap, and those who refuse their dinner are forced to eat "something nasty", such as mustard sandwiches. A few mothers admit pinching, scratching, and biting their children, or even using knives and scissors.

A new study, which will be released in part by the Department of Health this week, shows 91 per cent of children have been hit at some point and almost one in six has been severely beaten.

The figures, based largely on what parents admitted, show only a small reduction in the extent of beating since the last big survey on the subject in 1977.

The new study, by the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the University of London, found that a few parents put their children's heads under water and others poured scalding water over theirs . Many children were shaken, pushed or shoved.

The study involved 403 families in a Home Counties town and a suburb of inner London. Parents and children were interviewed at length. About a third of children aged four, and a quarter of those aged seven, were hit more than once a week.

The researchers found that 15 per cent of the children investigated, who were aged between one and eleven, had received "severe punishments", defined as assaults with the "intention or potential to cause injury or psychological damage"; punishments with implements, such as belts or sticks; and repeated punishments over a long period.

Twenty-four per cent of seven-year-olds had been hit hard. Older children were less likely to be hit; if they misbehaved they tended to be banned from watching television or going out.

The old cry of "Wait till your father gets home" seems no longer to apply. Mothers were more likely to hit their children than fathers, and not just because fathers spend less time at home. Even when care of children was shared equally, "fathers hit less", the research concludes.

The Department of Health will issue only a bland summary of the findings this week. Children's rights campaigners say ministers are embarrassed because they have opposed proposals for Britain to follow other European countries and ban corporal punishment in the home. Peter Newell, the co-ordinator of Epoch, the campaign to end all physical punishment of children, said: "We know that hurting and humiliating children is associated with the growth of violent attitudes in their later lives."

The research bears out his fear. Half the children said it was right for their parents to smack them, and most intended to smack their own children.