Opinion: Sparing the rod
An ICM poll has found that seven out of 10 parents believe that it is acceptable to smack children. No surprise in that. No surprise either in the chorus of protest that followed the publication of the survey, which was used as justification for the government's unwillingness to outlaw physical punishment. One Guardian columnist described the defence of a parent's responsibility to determine the appropriate means to discipline a child as akin to a defence of rape in marriage or even slavery.
Children's rights advocates claim to be horrified that three quarters of kids are smacked in the first year of their life. The government has insisted that, despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights that children have the same rights as adults to protection from assault, it must support parental discipline and resist nanny-state intervention. This is a surprising relief, as the government seems to have no hesitation supporting nanny-state intervention in many other areas of parenting, but it has upset the children's rights lobby no end.
The arguments against smacking vary between principle and pragmatism. We are told it is simply an expression of barbarism - a form of domestic violence. We are told it is counterproductive and that children who are physically punished tend to be more aggressive and misbehave more. We are told that, because smacking is a form of punishment rather than educative discipline, it does not promote children's ability to control and manage their own behaviour, and that physical punishment is potentially damaging to the parent-child relationship.
One anti-smacking campaign, EPOCH (End Physical Punishment of Children), cites research to demonstrate that children who are frequently aggressive to their siblings were four times as likely to have suffered regular corporal punishment. (They don't speculate as to whether sibling bullying might be the reason for justifiable regular corporal punishment.)
And so the smacking debate rumbles on and on, often seeming to miss the point. 'Smacking', in the abstract, is hardly a principle one can either defend or reject. Like any other action, whether or not it is appropriate depends on the context, the specific situation in which it occurs. Judges, lawyers, police officers and children's rights advocates are in no position to assess the context in which the inevitable naughtiness of children manifests itself, or the actions needed to keep them safe and teach them to behave. Only parents are.
It is ludicrous for the anti-smacking brigade to caricature smacking as either a brutal assault or a substitute for reasoning with a child about right and wrong. Most parents I know resort to a restrained spank as part of a wide repertoire of disciplinary options. A smack is frequently more a symbolic action demonstrating that the child has been seriously naughty, than a punishment in itself. The action is used to underscore a discussion not replace it.
It is ludicrous to suggest that smacking should be made illegal and that parents who spank a child should be prosecuted and publicly vilified in the same way as a man who beats his wife. Children's rights campaigners insist that physical forms of punishment are illegal in Sweden, Austria, Cyprus, Finland and Norway. But does that mean it doesn't happen? Does a responsible, sensible parent who feels that a smack is needed hold back because of fear of the law - or does she respond in the way she feels is best for her child?
Of course, not all physical punishment is considered and deliberate. In an argument for a ban on smacking, Jan Parker, co-author of Raising Happy Children, emphasises that 'most parents smack, not because they feel smacking is great but because they are exhausted, exasperated or otherwise at their wits' end and feel they must do something'. But surely that suggests a ban is unenforceable, and that this is an area where it is undesirable for the law to intervene?
Consider the recent case of the father who lost his cool and spanked his eight- year old daughter after a 40-minute stand-off while she refused to allow a dentist to attend to the painful tooth that had kept her and her parents awake for two nights. Obviously, this was not a case of smacking as part of carefully considered disciplinary training; the guy admits he snapped. But should he have been charged with assault and ordered to stay away from the family home for two weeks until his case was heard? How telling that it was the spanked daughter who insisted that the smacking had not made her bottom sore, and the mother who confirmed that the girl had cried every night that her father had been away because she missed him so much.
Most of the opposition to smacking seems to stem from a rather patronising distrust of parents' ability to draw a line between a disciplinary smack and a damaging beating. Save the Children insists that 'one person's smack is another person's assault'. Agony aunt Claire Rayner has argued that talk of disciplinary little taps 'is nonsense; if smacking didn't inflict pain, why do it?'.
But the truth is that whether smacking is a controlled admonishment or a spontaneous slap, the overwhelming majority of parents can be trusted to exercise some bottom-line self-control. Sadistic beating and disciplinary smacking are not different shades of the same thing, any more than hugging a child is a variant of incest. Seventy percent of parents think it is acceptable for them and others to smack; 70 percent of parents' children do not end up as victims of violent abuse.
Presumably the children's rights advocates trust themselves to act in the best interests of their children - they should trust others to do no less.
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999