Violence breeds violence
At the Scottish Socialist Party’s recent conference in Dundee, members adopted a radical new policy on corporal punishment of children - a so-called ‘anti-smacking’ policy.
Neil Scott, whose SSP branch put the successful resolution to conference, argues that legislation to stop physical punishment, in tandem with a programme of education, would be good for both parents and children. Rather than criminalising parents, changing our culture could lead to less children being taken from their families into care. Meanwhile Catriona Grant, the SSP’s women and equality spokesperson, looks at links between violence against children and other types of abuse in the home.
Last week I was cooking a curry for tea. I’m quite good at curries; dopiaza, korma, thai - basically any curry you name I can do, and do well. I take pride in my curries. I had bought all of the spices, creamed coconut, yogurt and started to prepare them. I told my wife that the curry would be ready soon. After the meticulous preparation, the dish was to simmer for ten minutes.
I went into the living room where my wife was reading and, to my horror, stuffing herself with a box of chocolates. Now, I know my wife and I know that if she eats anything before her dinner it will put her off her food. My planning and preparation were all to be in vain.What should I do?Would anyone advocate I hit her? I know little children who are hit for the same reason.Society has moved on and we look back in horror at the days when people argued in Parliament against legislation that would outlaw men hitting their wives. Yet people actually argued that it was something we should not criminalise - what went on in their homes was their business, they said.
Today, would anyone say that the legislation introduced to protect women was wrong?
Nowadays the same arguments are used against attempts to introduce legislation to protect children from physical punishment. The fact is that there are people in our society who think it is OK to hit children - and some say it is their religious and moral obligation. Quite a few of these people would not see the dichotomy of having laws to protect adults and advocating the protection of the ‘right’ to physically punish children.
British common law currently permits physical punishment of children, under the legal defence of ‘reasonable and moderate chastisement’.In 2004 this was reinforced by the Children’s Act which, whilst offering protection to children against ‘assault occasioning actual bodily harm’ at the same time implicitly reinforced a parent’s right to ‘reasonable punishment’.
The terms ‘physical abuse’ and ‘reasonable chastisement’ are imprecise and ultimately subjective. What constitutes physical abuse and what reasonable chastisement? Is a spank on the bottom with an open hand abuse? What about if it were across the face, or with a stick? Does abuse rather depend on how hard you hit and if so, how hard is too hard? Furthermore, is the nature of the misbehaviour important in determining whether the punishment is abusive or not?
In 2001 Elizabeth Gershoff undertook a study of the association between corporal punishment and certain behaviours and experiences.Gershoff found that children’s fear of physical punishment inhibited the development of internal motivation - problem solving skills. Corporal punishment, she concluded, may further decrease the learning of a moral code if its use results in little or no parental explanation of the problem the child is being punished for. Children live what they learn. In other words, behaviours that have been modelled for them by their parents are the behaviours they themselves imitate.
One of the main arguments therefore against the use of corporal punishment is that it models aggression for children and legitimises violence. In this way, children are more likely to show aggressive behaviour, violent criminal behaviour and aggression towards their own children.
Gershoff made the point that it is particularly poignant when children are physically punished for aggression, because corporal punishment models the very behaviour that parents are trying to discourage in their children. She goes on to say that, despite the risk of imitation, parents use corporal punishment more in response to children’s aggression than to any other child misbehaviour. Gershoff also concluded, in decreasing the moral internalisation (hitting rather than teaching) of society’s values, corporal punishment may predispose an individual to non-violent delinquency and adult crime. Their ability to internally judge what is morally right or wrong has been distorted by the unsparing use of the rod. The painful nature of corporal punishment may induce feelings of fear, anxiety and anger in the child or young person, which if associated with their parent may decrease the quality of the relationship between them. The child may become fearful of the parent who inflicts pain as a form of discipline, may withdraw from, or avoid them, resulting in an erosion of communication and trust between them.
Gershoff argued that children who experienced positive moods and emotions are more receptive to parents’ controls and that in contrast, feelings of pain or anger can motivate children towards resistance and retaliation. Gershoff cited evidence which indicated that coercive forms of discipline have a bad effect on the child’s confidence and assertiveness and increase feelings of helplessness and humiliation, and there is a significant association between harsh physical punishment and distress and depression in adolescence and low self-esteem, depression, alcoholism and suicidal tendency in adulthood.
Her suggestion that, when administered too frequently or too severely, corporal punishment becomes physical abuse is supported by statistics from an American study which showed that in 30 per cent of the families studied there was an escalation from the use of mild punishment to levels which could be considered abusive. Ultimately Gershoff presents a convincing argument indicating little evidence for benefits of corporal punishment but possible detrimental effects of physically punishing children.
In 2002 the Scottish Executive consulted on proposals to outlaw the physical punishment of children up to the age of three. Of the responses, 17 per cent were from people who were totally against a ban - people who were actually pro-smacking. The majority of these were individuals from the Christian right who believed that God, through the Bible, has instructed them that children MUST be physically chastised using an implement. So hitting their children brings the parents closer to their God. This response was typical: “I feel strongly that parents should be allowed to continue to use reasonable physical punishment for disciplining their children. This of course is useful only in a loving environment.“The only guideline that can be referred to is the Bible where it is very clear that corporal punishment has to be used and the short, temporary pain will save the child from a far worse consequence in life.”(From The Physical Punishment of Children in Scotland Analysis of Responses, page 9, see http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/Justice/Civil/17867/10386)
I am a Primary school teacher. Part of the curriculum I teach to P7’s is Democracy, part of which is learning how to have proper debates. A debate we have recently had in class is the issue of smacking. No child has said to me that they learn anything when they are hit.On the contrary, they say that anger comes in the way of their learning, even if an explanation for their punishment is offered. More than one child described the feeling that they could explode with rage and that they couldn’t hear or make sense of explanations after being hit.
As a teacher I have to ask, how do people think smacking benefits children? Is it not for the child’s benefit that people hit them? Under what circumstances does smacking improve the learning experience? The teaching profession, quite a few years ago, dropped this impediment to education - though not before a sadistic teacher beat a hatred of maths into me. I would argue that in our capitalist, elitist, violence-driven, patriarchal society, it teaches people that in violence lies an answer and that it is acceptable to be violated if you are weak or not part of the elite.
I wonder how many people who believe that the current situation in Iraq is acceptable were beaten as children? Or how many in Israel can look upon the violations they are inflicting upon the Palestinian people and say they themselves were not violated? Part of becoming politically aware is becoming politically aware of your oppression. Some children are aware of their oppression every day, through the imposition of capitalist poverty and through the imposition of adult chastisement. That the violation of children is socially acceptable tells us something very important about our society. We internalise our oppression and help to perpetuate it through the violent treatment of the impressionable young.
One way the class system is perpetuated is through the perpetuation of the violation of the weak and vulnerable. Back in 1979, Sweden became the first of 15 European countries to introduce legislation that protects their children. Three other countries have civil codes, constitutional rulings or supreme court rulings. The Swedish aims were to ensure that public attitudes were changed, to establish a clear framework of parental education and ensure earlier and less intrusive intervention when child protection was required. The ban was intended to be educational rather than punitive. Since 1979, the proportion of suspects prosecuted for child abuse who are in their 20s and therefore raised in a ‘no-smacking’ culture has decreased significantly. Violence against children has decreased since violence has been made unacceptable in law. The prosecution rate has shown a declining trend. There has been no increase of parents being drawn into the criminal justice system since the introduction of the protection and education legislation. There has been no increase of children being removed from parents through intervention. Quite the reverse. The number of children coming into care has decreased by 26 per cent since 1982 and increasingly these have been short-term placements. Youth crime has remained steady since the introduction of the no smack culture. Children involved in theft and narcotics crime has decreased. The proportion of youth who have experimented with drugs and consumed alcohol has decreased.The suicide rate amongst young people has declined. Assault against children by children has decreased. People who were brought up during the no-smacking culture have been less likely to commit child abuse than those brought up before the ban. I could go on. For more statistics go to endcorporalpunishment.org (pdf file)
In fact you can find reports from all of the other countries that have introduced the ban on the End Corporal Punishment site. Perhaps some will say that it is overly simplistic to say the ban has had a direct causal effect - but it certainly has not had a negative effect. Indeed, in modifying public attitudes it seems to have had an overwhelmingly positive effect.
For more reading, go to: http://naturalchildhood.blogspot.com/ or email Neil at email@example.com
You can watch the SSP conference debate on corporal punishment below
by Catriona Grant
The physical and emotional chastisement of children and young people cannot be tolerated by socialists any more than domestic abuse between intimate partners or ex-partners. Socialists and all progressive people believe that domestic abuse of women is unlawful and wrong - there is no real debate around this except on how to campaign and solutions to the problem. If socialists accept that domestic abuse - which includes all forms of physical abuse, everything from murder to slapping, sexual and mental abuse - is wrong and at times criminal, then the logical step is that all forms of maltreatment of children is wrong and at times criminal. I believe that smacking children (with an implement or not) should be dealt with the same way as domestic abuse. It is an outrage similar to the bygone law that stated women could be hit with a stick no bigger than her husband’s thumb.
The NSPCC in England did a research project into the maltreatment of children in 2002 and found that abused children come mainly from families where there is domestic violence and other serious family problems. Their report Child Maltreatment in the Family is the second report from the most comprehensive research into child abuse and neglect ever undertaken in Britain. It presents the findings of a survey of childhood experiences of 2,869 18-24 year olds, carried out by BMRB International for the NSPCC FULL STOP Campaign.The first report showed physical abuse was the most common form of child maltreatment, with 7 per cent of young people reporting serious physical abuse at the hands of parents and carers, including being hit with a fist or implement, beaten up, burned and scalded. The findings showed that eight out of ten of the young people who had suffered serious physical abuse had also experienced domestic violence. For nearly half (43 per cent) of these, the domestic violence was constant or frequent.
Most children do not experience maltreatment in their families. But when they do, the research revealed strong links between child maltreatment and other family relationship problems, especially domestic abuse and particularly where parents are distant and children have no respect for them. The study also found that children experiencing frequent changes in family structure were especially vulnerable to abuse. Those who had grown up in lone parent or broken families were between three to six times more likely to have suffered serious abuse, though some abuse may have preceded family breakdown (and can be the cause of the breakdown, such as a parent ending the relationship with an abuser).
The study shows that child maltreatment often occurs in otherwise stable and loving families, but is likely to be less serious, less frequent and less long-lived - however maltreatment is maltreatment, even if it is seen as ‘just a smack’. In all, 5 per cent of children experience more than one type of serious maltreatment by parents. These children are likely to suffer years of multiple maltreatment, telling no one and receiving little help or comfort. Their situation is dire.
The debate within socialist and progressive circles around smacking children should not be around whether it is unlawful or not - though, presently, reasonable physical chastisement of children is lawful - but what we do to reduce the prevalence and to better support parents and children who have complex problems in their families and lives. There needs to be more funding into projects that support families. Greater understanding of both domestic abuse and child maltreatment is required in order to offer the necessary support to those in need. And we need public and political education regarding respect and tolerance in families and that violence in the family is unnecessary and damaging.
There is never an excuse for domestic or child abuse.