Stockholm – When celebrating the 30th anniversary of the world's first national ban on corporal punishment of children last month, Sweden's social affairs minister, Göran Hägglund, claimed a dramatic success over something many Swedes now consider a scourge.
"Colleagues from other countries often ask how we manage to raise children here without hitting them, but it works," he said. "Many countries have followed our model but we still have a way to go."
Sweden was the first of 24 countries to introduce a ban on smacking children in 1979. At the time traditionalists said it would lead to unruly kids, and other critics say the ban would be largely unenforceable. But according to official figures, just 10 percent of Swedish children are spanked or otherwise struck by their parents today. More than 90 percent of Swedish children were smacked prior to the ban.
It is held up as a model by child rights campaigners lobbying for wider adoption of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, on which the Swedish law is based. The campaign experienced a setback last month when New Zealanders voted to repeal their anti-smacking law in a hotly contested referendum. The law places a legal obligation on teachers, day care workers, and health care professionals to report any suspicion of abuse. This has led to a surge in the number of reported cases, yet the proportion of serious cases of abuse has decreased.
"When there is this moral standpoint that you should not use any violence against children, it influences the more severe kinds of violence," says Children's Ombudsman Fredrik Malmberg.
Spare the rod, spoil the child?
Polls show the ban has near universal support in Sweden. However there is a vocal international movement against the Swedish model.
"In Sweden parents are afraid of their children. They don't dare to correct them for fear of being reported," says Ruby Harrold-Claesson, chairperson of the Nordic Committee for Human Rights, a Scandinavian-based lobby group fighting for the repeal of anti-smacking laws.
"It is a crime to smack a child," she adds. "But children constantly test the boundaries of how far they can go - and if a parent always has to back off then the children take over."
Mrs. Harrold-Claesson, who contributed to the campaign to repeal New Zealand's smacking law, claims the law is causing a crime wave in Sweden by preventing parents from controlling their children.
Mali Nilsson, at the international charity Save the Children, denies the ban has increased crime. She cites official figures from the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention indicating that youth crime has decreased in Sweden since the mid-1990s and violent crime has remained static.
She says that smacking is a human rights issue.
"If you get upset with me about something you don't have the right to hit me, do you? Then why shouldn't children enjoy the same rights?" she says, adding that the main purpose of the Swedish law is to change attitudes.
"The law does not actually lay down any legal punishment for smacking but requires social workers to support families with problems. There's been no increase in parents drawn into the criminal justice system or of children taken away from their families," she adds.
However research carried out earlier this year points to a slight uptick in the number of parents who say they smack their kids over the last decade.
Professor Staffan Janson, one of Sweden's leading child health experts, attributes the change to the country's relatively high level of immigration, as well as the influence of foreign, often American, TV shows offering parenting advice.
"Parents who are not sure how to discipline their children can find it easier to adopt the simple message that you get quicker results by hitting them."