This week a 19-year-old mother from Blackpool called Kayleigh Searle was jailed for eight years for leaving her baby blind and severely disabled after slamming his head into a door and throwing him into a washing basket. The judge who sentenced her was so furious that he took a 15 minute break before passing the sentence in order that he wouldn't unjustly punish the accused. Despite struggling to deliver a fair verdict there could have been no doubt that this was the most horrendous case of child abuse, directed at a three month old baby, a world away from the mild smacks many parents administer to naughty children.
This week the Welsh Assembly was debating whether to outlaw hitting children and ended up sort of agreeing that banning parents from smacking kids was a good idea but that they'd best not change the law during this term, meaning nothing will happen until after 2016. The minister responsible for children, Gwenda Thomas, said of the fudge that she was "committed to retaining the option to legislate at a future date if we can't achieve the significant change we seek through other means" and that she "…would be fearful of criminalising parents, especially our most vulnerable". (I'm taking "vulnerable" to mean poor and/or young, a bit like Ms Searle.)
Currently the law allows parents to hit children as long as their purpose is "chastisement". If the legal defence of "reasonable chastisement" or "reasonable punishment" were removed it would be a crime to hit a kid. A bit like you can be prosecuted for hitting your spouse. The BBC quoted Labour Assembly Member Julie Morgan as saying "…she wanted the law to give children the same protection as adults" and her opposite Conservative counterpart Darren Miller saying: "I firmly believe parents should have the right to chastise their children…I think there should be less interference in family life, not more." (UK politics in a nutshell!)
My single parent mother worked all day and returned home to constant bickering and back chat from two mouthy boys, this occasionally drove her to hit us, and as most recipients of low-level corporal punishment will say, it didn't do me any harm. I certainly would not have liked to have seen my mother carted off in a police van for one of these slaps, which would have left us feeling pretty guilty (and hungry). As Mr Miller implies interfering in family life is not to be undertaken lightly as the consequences can be so drastic. Although from a legal standpoint it seems strange that one of the most defenceless elements of society is afforded less protection than adults.
Stand-up comedian Louis CK makes a pertinent point in his 'Hilarious' routine when he talks about how people seem proud to state: "I hit my kids." Replace kids with dogs or friends and it seems insane. But not only do some people seem to think administering corporal punishment to small, vulnerable people who are almost entirely dependent on them is socially acceptable; they also seem to think they are doing their kids a favour. Surely teaching kids that anyone who disagrees with them or won't do as they are told deserves a slap teaches them an entirely unintended lesson?
More qualified commentator Supernanny Jo Frost famously advocates the naughty step instead of the back of the hand: "What is more effective is using consequences that allow a child to reflect about their behaviour, to think for themselves, to make sound judgments, to be able to know the difference between right and wrong." Perhaps this sort of consistency should indeed be embedded in a law, a proposition that the UK may be forced to accept by the Council of Europe that is attempting to enforce a ruling in 1998 that hitting children is an abuse of their human rights.