24 May 1999
The demand to make smacking illegal will do more harm than good to relationships between parents and children, argues Tiffany Jenkins
The 'Children are unbeatable!' alliance was launched at the end of last year, made up of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, Barnardo's, the National Children's Bureau, and supported by 140 smaller organisations. The alliance is demanding a change in the law, to make corporal punishment illegal, and claimed a boost to its case last week when a father was prosecuted for smacking his daughter at a dentist's.
In response to the alliance, Home Office minister Paul Boateng promised to publish a consultation document in January, which was then postponed until spring, and now will not be published until the summer. The consultation document is unlikely to propose a ban on smacking, as the children's charities would like, but the government's hesitation suggests that it does not have the courage to take on the 'Children are unbeatable!' alliance, or to make a clear statement about smacking children.
At the heart of the alliance, and expressed in response to last week's prosecution of a father, there is a fundamental distrust of the average parent to take care of his or her child. The 'Children are unbeatable!' alliance suggests that one main reason to outlaw all forms of physical discipline is because parents cannot distinguish between a smack and physical assault, and often end up abusing their children where they mean to discipline them. As the alliance's literature states: 'Most serious physical abuse of children starts with "ordinary" physical punishment.'
Such a low view of parents was picked up by much of the media. In the Guardian, Rachel Hodgkin argued that 'the physical punishment invisibly escalates', and on Radio 5 Gerison Lansdown pointed to the 'continuum of violence that can start with a slap and could end anywhere'. The 'Children are unbeatable!' alliance and its supporters clearly underestimate the ability of parents to distinguish between discipline and assault.
The alliance suggests that the 'confusion' between which forms of discipline are acceptable and which are unacceptable needs to be cleared up by a new law, setting boundaries for parents. Yet just such an approach is likely to create greater confusion, as any physical touch or smack becomes equated with serious abuse. To compare a physical reprimand with physical assault undermines parents' ability to judge what his best for their child. It also trivialises the serious assault that a minority of children are subjected to. A new law based on the alliance's demands will create a suspicious climate around the relationships between parents and children.
The reality is that parents can distinguish between a smack and physical assault. In fact, the person best placed to decide the appropriate punishment for a naughty child is the parent who knows the child, loves him and is responsible for him. For organisations which claim to represent children and parents to suggest otherwise is plain irresponsible. It undermines the confidence of parents and the faith that they need to have in themselves. The alliance's plans will also indicate to children that their parents cannot be trusted to care for them - and will undermine the authority of the parent which is so important to a child's upbringing.
For more on this subject, see Smacking parents in the June issue of LM - in which James Heartfield interviews Ruby Harrold-Claesson, a Swedish lawyer who represents parents against that country's 'anti-family' smacking laws. The full text of this article will be available online at the end of June.
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