A total ban on smacking would not help parents to raise their children, Health Minister Jacqui Smith insisted.
Ministers were facing criticism over the decision – due to be formally announced later today – to allow parents in England and Wales to use "reasonable chastisement" in disciplining their children.
Children's charities had pressed ministers to follow Scotland and introduce a total ban, with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children warning that a failure to do so would be tantamount to declaring "open season on hitting babies and toddlers".
Ms Smith, who revealed she had smacked her own children in the past, said she did not believe a ban would "help us to be better parents".
She denied the Government's decision would mean a "free–for–all" and said it was clear that violence against children was unacceptable.
"I have got to set the sort of legal framework that people have confidence in, that we can enforce, that protects children from abuse but that recognises that parenting is difficult," she said.
"I am not convinced that banning smacking actually helps us to be better parents."
Speaking on GMTV, the minister added: "I have, on occasions, resorted to smacking.
"I don't personally think it is a very good way to discipline my children."
The Government's decision follows a UK–wide consultation on the physical punishment of children, ordered after the European Court of Human Rights found that Britain failed to protect a boy whose stepfather beat him with a cane.
A survey conducted as part of the review process was understood to have found that 70% of the public wanted to preserve the status quo and keep the law as it is, and a phone vote on GMTV showed 91% supported that position.
The Department of Health was expected to say that the definition of what constituted "reasonable chastisement" would be kept under review and Ms Smith said that law courts already considered whether types of punishment, its duration and its effects, were reasonable.
The decision not to legislate has put Westminster at odds with the Scottish Parliament, where the devolved administration is preparing to ban all physical punishment of under–threes.
And there were reports that ministers could face a revolt on the issue from their own backbenches.
The chairman of the Commons Health Committee, David Hinchliffe, told The Guardian: "There is a lot of unease among a significant number of MPs about lack of progress on this question."
NSPCC Director Mary Marsh criticised the decision not to outlaw smacking and accused the Government of misreading the public mood.
She said: "We must protect children and support parents. This announcement does neither and is a step backwards for child protection.
"It is scandalous that the Government has ignored the view of virtually every child protection and health professional in the country.
"The Dickensian idea of reasonable chastisement has no place in a modern civilised society. Children should enjoy the same legal protection from being hit as that afforded to adults. Anything less puts children at risk." She warned that by failing to meet even the minimum standard set by the Scottish Executive, the Government was sending a dangerous message to parents that it was acceptable to hit children – and even babies and toddlers.
She added: "By ducking a law against hitting children and not investing heavily in public education, the Government has dealt a cruel blow to child protection and misread the public mood.
"Parents are prepared for legal reform, but also want help and advice."
Ms Smith said the Government would be giving extra support to the National
Family and Parenting Institute so it could provide parents with practical help
and alternatives to smacking.
Save the Children spokeswoman Kate Harper said more than 300 British organisations had lobbied ministers for a change in the law.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast News she said it was not clear what was "reasonable" and that the courts could not prevent violence against children.
"It isn't necessary to smack and our evidence from working with parents is that most parents don't like smacking, they just don't know what else to do," she said.
Ferris Lindsay, of Friends of the Family, welcomed the Government's decision and said children in loving families could "benefit greatly" from smacking if it was coupled with "verbal correction".
"Sometimes a well–timed slap is able to teach a child that what they have done is wrong, if that is accompanied by words," he said.Reuse content