“Fresh call for smacking to be outlawed in the home,” is how the BBC headlined a report on the latest call for government action on the issue, this time made by the Association of Educational Psychologists.
That word “smacking”. It’s one of those that people use to make unpalatable truths easier to bear, like describing killing your own troops as “friendly fire”. Shame on the national broadcaster for indulging in such sugar coating when what we’re talking about here is hitting children.
Imagine were that headline to have been a little more honest. Imagine were it have read something like: “Fresh call to outlaw violently striking children in the home.”
There are plenty who might react to the first one with a “for goodness sake be reasonable”. Would they so easily say that about latter? Or would they ask themselves why they hell we haven’t done it already.
It’s common when this debate is raised to note that hitting children is already prohibited in much of Europe. According to fullfact.org, the fact checking charity, the UK is one of only six exceptions among the (currently) 28 EU states.
However, its report shows that it isn’t just the supposedly woolly, liberal Europe where the tide is turning against the use of violence to keep kids on the straight and narrow.
The same is true of a majority of countries in South America, a number of African countries, New Zealand, Mongolia and much of Central America. The report also lists several more countries including India, South Africa, Algeria, Mexico and Turkey as committed to introducing a ban.
At this rate Britain, or rather England, is going to end up sticking out like a sore thumb (plus ca change). The parliaments of Scotland and Wales are considering joining the civilised parts of the world.
A campaign group named “Be Reasonable” has been set up to oppose their efforts.
I was interested to watch what Dr Stuart Waiton had to say when he appeared on an ITV news report last week on the subject of Scotland’s consideration of the issue.
He also used the term “smacking” rather than “hitting”, even going so far as to demonstrate the practice of it by lightly tapping his wrist with his hand. Look, see. It’s clinical and rational and you want to criminalise people?
But, of course, it’s rarely like that in practice. In practice parents hit their children after they are pushed and get angry. They lash out, often two or three times, sometimes more. It can be very unpleasant to witness when it happens public.
According to psychologists this has an effect on their brains, making further, and still more violent punishments, more likely.
It might be true that in most cases no visible mark is left – that would be illegal – but an open handed strike against a child is still an assault perpetrated against a much weaker party.
I grew up in a hitting household at a time when the practice was much more commonplace and widely accepted than it is today. Now the father of two children, I knew at the outset that I didn’t want the same for them.
It is important that children have boundaries, and they have to be sanctioned when they have crossed the line. But there are better ways of doing that, and they achieve better results than the use of violence.
I should stress that I don’t advocate the mass criminalisation of those, like the good doctor, who disagree. As a society we are too quick to judge, and too slow to offer support to parents.
The authorities should absolutely concentrate on the most serious cases of assault; on the kids who turn up to school with welts and bruises on their arms and legs, and worse.
A number of high profile cases have clearly demonstrated that they need to do better, although they could surely use some more funding to that end.
But it is nonetheless important that the state establishes the principle that hitting children is wrong. It should be illegal, just as hitting anyone else is illegal.
We’re in a frankly bizarre situation when you could wind up in jail for lamping a six foot rugby player who insults you while you’re out carousing, but can freely hit your three foot daughter if she throws a strop and gets in the way of you watching him on Sky Sports when you get home.
“But it never did me any harm.”
That's the fall-back position of those who seek to debunk trained psychologists when they argue that yes, physically punishing your children does damage them and can lead to a range of negative consequences including poor mental health, heightened aggression, and antisocial behaviour.
Thing is, doesn’t a willingness to stand up and argue that it’s reasonable to violently strike someone half your size serve as clear evidence that it is harmful?