How Historical Attitudes to Violence to Children were Changed

In Finland wide public discussions in the 1970s led to a change in law and an unequivocal ban on the use of corporal punishment in 1984. During the two and a half decades since then, a remarkable historical change has taken place in relation to violence against children. The process is still under way, but it can be accelerated. The Central Union for Child Welfare achieved this with the Never Hit a Child Campaign.The clause allowing parents the right to use corporal violence to discipline their children was removed from the penal code in 1979. The use of “corporal punishment” was banned from the beginning of 1984 in the Child Custody and Right of Access Act. In the implementation of the law it was stated that the provisions of the penal code can also be used when parents use violence against their own children.

It has often been asked over the years since 1984 whether the law has been useful in protecting children. Has violence against children decreased or not? Unfortunately, up to now no comparable data have been available about the trend of actual violence against children. Next autumn, however, a new child victim survey will come out. It has data that can readily be compared to a similar survey from 1990 (Sariola & Uutela, 1990).

Instead of actual violence, we have data about the development of attitudes towards the use of disciplinary violence (corporal punishment) against children.

To assess the change we need surveys that are methodologically similar and use the same questions at different times. In the 1980s two surveys were undertaken to map attitudes towards “corporal punishment” of children. The question was, “Do you agree with the following statement: corporal punishment of children is acceptable at least as an exception in some cases? The answers were mapped in a scale of five alternatives from total acceptance to total rejection of the statement.

In 1981 47 percent of the adult population (52% of men and 44% of women) of Finland accepted corporal punishment and 44 percent were against the use of violence. In 1985 the acceptance had decreased to 43 percent, and 46 percent of the populations were against corporal punishment. Now only 35 percent of women accepted corporal punishment, but the men’s percentage had remained the same, 52 percent. But also the attitudes of men had changed. Men accepted the statement more often in some degree, not totally, than they did before.

Twenty years later…

The next time the attitudes were surveyed in summer 2004, nearly twenty years later. Both sexes had changed their attitudes to more negative in relation to corporal punishment. The change was more clear among women: in 2004 only 23 percent of women accepted corporal punishment (against 35 % in 1985). The percentage of men accepting corporal punishment had come down to 45 % from the earlier 52 in 1985.

These figures were published at a press conference in 2004 and a lively and broad public discussion started in newspapers and especially in different internet discussion forums. These discussions were followed in the Central Union for Child Welfare and our overall impression was that the pro-violence party was more active. Planning of a new campaign started.

Never Hit a Child campaign

The Never Hit a Child media campaign was planned to answer the challenge of the new pro-punishment activists. The campaign was planned to concentrate on the more mild forms of violence, such as everyday slapping and hair pulling and other traditional behaviours, and not on severe violence. The reason was that practically nobody accepts severe violence and severe child-battering and abuse. The pro-punishment lobby used comparison with harsh violence to make the milder forms of violence acceptable. We wanted to concentrate, therefore, directly on the milder forms of violence to avoid this false dilemma.

The other reason for concentrating on mild violence was that the use of harsh violence in a campaign might hinder a rational discussion because of the shock caused by materials which were too upsetting.

The Never Hit a Child campaign included a set of media activities consisting of two press conferences at the launch of the campaign, a print media advertising campaign, an internet site and a free brochure giving advice to parents.

Punishment violence

An innovation was introduced during the planning of the campaign. It became clear that the term “corporal punishment” in itself includes a justification for the use of violence against children by depicting it as a part of child upbringing. It was therefore a hindrance to the work against violence.

During the campaign we coined a new term in Finnish meaning “punishment-violence”, implying that corporal punishment is also a form of violence and the term has been accepted widely both in scientific articles and even in popular press. The new term makes it much less easy to argue for the use of violence against children than the old term “corporal punishment”. The campaign was run from the autumn of 2006 to spring 2007.

The trend in attitude change

The Central Union for Child Welfare, in cooperation with the National Council for Crime Prevention, wanted to follow the effects of the Never Hit a Child campaign. For this purpose surveys were undertaken both before (in June 2006) and after (in September 2007) the campaign. The results and the trend in the development of attitudes from the 1980s are shown in the Figure 1.

In June 2006, 23 percent of women still accepted corporal punishment. At the same time, more women than before were against the use of violence, with fewer responding ‘Don’t know’.

The attitudes of men had clearly developed in the direction of non-violence. In two years the acceptance of violence had decreased from 45 percent to 36 percent.

Although there were a huge drop of 21 percentage points in the attitudes of women and a 16 percentage point drop in the attitudes of men in the acceptance of violence during the period of 25 years, almost a third of the population still accepted corporal punishment. The percentage for both sexes together was 29. So the situation was not satisfactory. After this 2006 survey the campaign took place.

The effect of the campaign

Between 2006 and 2007 the attitudes were surveyed with the same question as in the earlier surveys in the 1980s and in 2004. But now we used two different market research agencies and two different methods. First, there was the traditional survey that had been used in all the previous surveys (Figure 1) and secondly an internet survey. (Its results are not shown in the figure). Also the internet surveys had a representative sample of Finnish households.

Between 2006 and 2007 the proportion of those who agreed with the statement went down from 33 to 28 per cent according to the internet-based surveys and from 29 to 26 per cent according to the traditional Omnibus surveys. While the first change does not reach statistical significance, the second one does and if the surveys are pooled together, then significance is clear. The drop between 2006 and 2007 is also steeper than the downward trend from 2004. However, the drop from 2004 onwards is steeper than the slow downward change since the 1980s surveys and the acceleration may well have been prompted by the 2004 survey and the publicity around it.

If we then compare the results in a much longer perspective from the 1980s, the impact of the campaign is quite clear.

In 1985, 43 percent of the population accepted the use of corporal punishment. By 2004 the acceptance had decreased to 34 percent, i.e. by about 0.5 percentage points a year over 19 years. From the first CUCW Survey in 2004 and its publicity, the decrease was 5 percentage points to 2006 (2.5 % points per year), and then before and after the campaign (2006 to 2007) the decrease was 3 percentage points in one year. With the publicity and the campaign the decrease was a total of 8 percentage points in three years.


From the 1980s to this day a historically remarkable change in attitudes has taken place. It seems still to be continuing. Also the focus in the campaigning seems to have changed. In the 1980s it was common to discuss the psychological harm that violence causes to children, and the possible pros and cons of corporal punishment. The opponents of corporal punishment aimed to show how violence against children leads to many kinds of harm, increases aggressiveness and aggression and violence in the whole society. Very often the long-term traumatising effects of violence were emphasised.

From 1990 on, and still more clearly since the beginning of the new millennium, the emphasis has been in the human rights of children and children’s right to a life without violence. This is certainly a move in the right direction. When speaking about adult violence, we do not discuss the good and bad sides of violence in intimate relationships. So we must not limit our discussions in violence against children to the practical questions, but see childhood in itself as a valuable part of an individual’s life. It must be protected from violence and fear of violence.

Heikki Sariola is a Researcher at the Central Union for Child Welfare, Helsinki, Finland.


Peltoniemi, T. (1988) Familjevåld – omfattning och attityder i Finland 1981 och 1985. Nordisk Tidsskrift for Kriminalvidenskab.

Sariola & Uutela (1992) The Prevalence and Context of Family Violence against Children in Finland. Child Abuse and Neglect: The International Journal, v16 n6 p823-32 Nov-Dec 1992

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.