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Striking a balance

Edd Fawcett on smacking children

Scotland has opted to ban hitting toddlers and the rest of Britain looks set to follow. But is this really what we want? Edd Fawcett looks at the case for and against physical punishment of children

I can still remember the cries of pain that came wailing out of the biggest bully in school. The Head teacher had brought the nine-year-old David Phillips into our classroom to be disciplined by our teacher, a giant of a Scotsman with a bellowing voice to match. The Head left David in the capable hands of our teacher assuming that he would be given yet another ticking off. The big man had other ideas. He reached on top of the blackboard and unsheathed ‘Excalibur’, not the mythical sword of King Arthur, but rather the plastic-soled football boot of form 4b.

We had all been warned with Excalibur at one time or another but, given that corporal punishment in schools had long been abolished, assumed that it had seen its last schoolchild’s rear end. As David took a countless number of licks from the boot, I remember thinking initially that he had finally received what he had long been asking for, then thinking how hypocritical it was to beat a child as a punishment for beating other children. So why is it that teachers as a role mode are now grossly frowned upon for administering physical discipline, whilst parents (who may well spend less time in a week with the child) are essentially free to smack their child for the smallest of wrongdoings?

The Scottish parliament has banned hitting or shaking children under the age of three and hitting a child of any age on the head. Will the rest of the Britain’s parents be as keen to accept such legislation? A MORI poll published in February revealed that the majority of the English and Welsh public believe it should be the right of the parent to administer a ‘short, sharp shock’ to unruly children between the ages of six and ten.

But is England behind the times concerning the protection of children from physical punishment? In 1993 Judge Ian McLean, a father of two, allowed the appeal of a woman who had been convicted of common assault for smacking her daughter after she had stolen sweets. Judge Mclean commented, "If a parent cannot slipper a child, the world is going potty."

It was not until 1999 that a parent was prosecuted in Britain for smacking a child. The eight-year-old girl had refused to go into the dentist’s surgery; scared of the injection she was due to receive. After 40 minutes of trying to persuade his daughter the man finally snapped and put her over his knee, spanking her bare behind. The Lanarkshire teacher was found guilty of assault. Until this point parents had always pleaded that they had a right to inflict ‘reasonable chastisement.’ This vague defence included the use of various implements (belts, canes, electrical flexes) and dates back to 1860.

The case caused much controversy. Many parents sympathized with the man who was barred from visiting his own home over the Christmas period. Organizations such as the anti-smacking group, Children Are Unbeatable and the National Society for the Protection of Children (NSPCC) supported the verdict.
"The NSPCC opposes the physical punishment of children. It is an attack on their human rights. The fact that they are smaller, younger and have no strong voice of their own, is no defence against hitting them," explains NSPCC Policy Advisor, Lucy Thorpe. "The practice of hitting our own offspring is ludicrous. It is an entirely cultural phenomenon."

Polls over recent years show that that more people in Britain want foxhunting banned than want a ban on hitting their children. These polls indicate that a great deal of parents must be doing it.
Jane Stevenson, a 42-year-old mother of three from Ecton, Northamptonshire, and part-time supply teacher believes with the masses that you have to be cruel to be kind, "I’ve hit my children on more than one occasion, not to hurt them but to show them the limits of their naughtiness. When I was young my mother smacked me a few times and it had no negative impact on me. To suggest that smacking should become a criminal offence though. That’s ridiculous."

Smacking seems to be so normal in British society that it is seen by many as the correct way to discipline our children. Single mother of one, 24-year-old Claire Trueman from Macclesfield takes this view, "Children need to be kept in line and I think that smacking is the normal way of doing that. When I was a child I only got smacked a few times, a couple of times every year or so, and when I did get smacked I knew that I’d done something really wrong."

Hilton Harvey, a 22-year-old father from Lincoln disagrees, "There’s no way that I’d ever hit my son, not even a slap. You have to set an example. It’s not morally right and I see no benefit in it, all it does is create resentment between parent and child."

Even our language excuses the action of using violence in to confirm our authority. Smacking, spanking, getting a ‘clip around the ear’ or being ‘shown the back of my hand’ all casualize the physical and emotional pain that children go through.

Dr. Liam Fox, the shadow health secretary, takes a traditional view that corporal punishment is a necessary tool, "Smacking children to teach them the difference between right and wrong is often a necessary, if painful, task." He excuses physical discipline as a parental duty that is done for the good of the child and hurts the parent more than the child. Opposing opinions argue that if it is such a necessary method of discipline then why is it so often done behind closed doors or in the quietest of corners.

Even Tony Blair and David Blunkett have admitted to smacking their children. So if the action is so deeply ingrained into our culture that even our leaders have resorted to it then why does it need to stop so urgently? The general opinion is that smacking is an effective tool in preventing children from misbehaving. The opposing argument runs that smacking may work as a short-term solution, however, children learn from the actions of others and will believe that violence is an acceptable antidote to life’s problems.

Professor Christina Lyon University of Liverpool has carried out research that suggests corporal punishment for children develops violent tendencies both in childhood and in adult life.
Many parents believe that smacking is wrong yet still hit their children. It is a cry for help when no other solution can be found. The smacking is often followed by a sense of guilt and regret from the parent and then an attempted ‘quick-fix’ hug. A process that can easily confuse the child.
Whilst those in favour of smacking as a punishment and a deterrent believe that the ‘short, sharp shock’ works well, there is no way of gauging what is an appropriate degree of force to be used. The organization Children Are Unbeatable maintains that love is in no way being shown when a child is being smacked. Therefore a level of anger is involved and with anger comes a fine line between the cupped hand smack and a clenched fist.

Britain is not alone in the debate. Ten countries in Europe have already outlawed physical punishment by parents and have gone through this arduous process. In all of these countries the majority of the public were opposed to banning physical punishment. Since the laws have been introduced though, public opinion has shifted and now the majority are in favour of the legislation.
The greatest suggestion that the rest of Britain should embrace a law that criminalizes smacking comes when we compare statistics between Sweden and ourselves. There corporal punishment has been illegal for 22 years, and statistics show that in that time only four children have died from physical injuries inflicted by an adult. In Britain one child per week has died from such injuries. The figures speak for themselves, but will Labour adhere to general public opinion and let smacking continue? The government should lead, not follow us to the inevitable answer.

© Edd Fawcett May 2002

(It raises the further issue of if we don't smack, what kind of discipline will work? )
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