Smacking has often been used as a means of disciplining children in the UK throughout history up until the present day – and not just by parents.
Teachers in state schools in England, were allowed to use corporal punishment on their students, right up until 1987 when a law banning it, was enforced. In private schools the ban came into effect in 1998.
Smacking is defined as striking someone or something typically with the palm of the hand as a punishment. Under current legislation parents can hit a child if it constitutes “reasonable chastisement and does not leave a serious mark”.
However children’s commissioner for England Maggie Atkinson believes this doesn’t go far enough. She told the ‘i’ newspaper that she was in favour of a total ban which would see parents facing criminal action for corporal punishment.
“Because in law you are forbidden from striking another adult and from physically chastising your pets, but somehow there is a loophole (and) you can physically chastise your child,” she said.
Twenty three countries in Europe have completely outlawed smacking but it is legal in America. In Australia, Canada and South Africa it’s allowed only if deemed ‘reasonable’.
In Britain people’s perceptions towards smacking have certainly changed over time and some of it is tied to a recognition of human and children’s rights.
Dr Robert Vanderbeck, a human geographer at the University of Leeds, explained that "although there is a growing recognition now that children have rights separate from parents and adults, this was first endorsed by the League of Nations in 1924.”
In the middle of the 20th century there was also increasing scepticism about the effectiveness of physical punishment. Vanderbeck explained that a parenting guide written by American paediatrician Benjamin Spock was hugely influential. The book called ‘Baby and Child Care’ was first published in the 1940s but was read for decades afterwards.
“It became a huge international bestseller and was considered the second best-selling book of all time other than the bible. Spock was very much against the physical punishment of children and this is often attributed with growing distaste among parents for physical punishment and authoritarian modes of parenting,” said Vanderbeck.
The 2004 Children’s Act went further to protect the rights of children. It removed the defence of “reasonable chastisement” if the punishment led to visible marks - bruising cuts or scratches.
According to Vanderbeck, academic studies have shown that “mild forms of physical chastisement can have a negative and lasting impact on a child. He said: “There is quite a considerable body of research which says that this experience has negative long term consequences.”
Vanderbeck stated that opinion polls showed that there are generational differences in experience and views of smacking. He said the older generation reported being smacked more as children and had stronger views about the legitimacy of it as a practice, whereas younger parents reported being smacked less and also were more sceptical about the effectiveness.
He said: “It’s interesting, if you look at opinion polls still more than 50 per cent of adults are against an outright complete ban on smacking.”
Margaret Morrisey of parenting group Parents Outloud believes the current law in England is sufficient. She thinks it would be “disgusting” if parents were to face criminal action for smacking their children and said Maggie Atkinson’s comments were “extremely irresponsible.”
Morrisey, who has seven grandchildren, admitted to dishing out the occasional smack. She said: “There have been times when one or two of them have had a smack. It’s quite often been related to doing something dangerous for instance insisting on touching something hot, turning switches of an electric cooker on or poking things into a video player.
'All of them are told ‘Grandma will smack you if you’re naughty. She will ask you not to do it at least 3 times but if you insist on carrying on when you know it’s wrong, you know it’s dangerous and you know Grandma said don’t do it, the chances are she will smack you.’
'All children need a deterrent. They don’t automatically understand right from wrong and we are the ones who need to show them. Sometimes it takes a little bit more than ‘please don’t do that’. We’re not being cruel to them, we’re not harming them, we are trying to teach them there are parameters in life that you just cannot cross and the earlier you learn this the better it’s going to be.'
The Christian Institute agrees with Morrisey’s viewpoint. Director Colin Hart would object to any changes to the law. He said: “The law should be concerned about child abuse not normal parental discipline. It should not criminalise people who smack their children."
Hart believes that sarcasm is more dangerous than a smack as the negative effects can be long lasting for a child who may feel “humiliated” or their self-confidence destroyed.
Meanwhile child protection charity the NSPCC believes that smacking is not an effective or constructive way of dealing with bad behaviour. It believes that children need greater protection and that a clear legal line needs to be drawn to prevent child abuse.
A spokesman said: “Our view is that “We want to help parents use other methods to teach their children the difference between right and wrong. Parents often smack out of anger and later regret it and children tell us that it leaves them confused and upset that the person who usually protects them is hurting them. And it doesn’t stop them doing what they were smacked for.”
The charity believes that the law as it currently stands is “ambiguous” and undermines its ability to protect children effectively. It would like to see a change in legislation. The spokesman said: “We want to end the dual standards of allowing children to be hit when adults are protected by the law. This is why the NSPCC wants the law changed to deliver a clear and unequivocal message that hitting and hurting children is unlawful in order to provide a clear basis for child protection.”
So under current legislation what constitutes reasonable chastisement? “A tap on the hand or a smack on the bottom,” said Morrisey. “Just a tap – something that will pull them up sharply but not mark them or hurt them too much is acceptable. I don’t think beating a child is acceptable.”
Hart concurs: “A smack should be immediately related to what the child has done wrong. It’s perfectly acceptable but there’s clearly a line. Injuring a child anything other than temporarily is clearly is a problem.”
Justine Roberts CEO of Mumsnet said the parenting website felt it was better not to use physical punishment. "Mumsnet users on the whole believe it's better not to use violence not least because it feels hypocritical to tell children one thing about hitting others, yet practice another,” she said.
Despite Atkinson’s comments, the Government says there are no plans to change the law on smacking. A spokesman told Yahoo! News: "Our policy on smacking is clear. We do not condone violence towards children. However, we do not wish to criminalise parents for issuing a mild smack."