Monday, October 29, 2007

Why smacking is indefensible

OH, I get it. If I strike an adult - in a fight over a parking space, or because they try to stop me entering a club, say - then I could be charged with assault. But if I strike my children, then that counts as "parental discipline", and the state is happy to aid and abet it.

What sense does this make? I can't help agreeing with the children's commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, that children should have the same right to protection under the law on common assault as is afforded to adults, and share his disappointment that after reviewing the legislation, the government has bottled out of introducing an outright smacking ban. Our own Scottish commissioner for children, Kathleen Marshall, is also of the same opinion. So are all the major children's charities.

Why are British politicians so keen to defend the right of parents to assault children? We are demonstrably backward in our attitudes. New Zealand introduced a ban this summer. Seventeen other European countries have the same law. Some of them, like Sweden and Holland, are known for their liberal social attitudes. Others, such as Greece, Romania, Ukraine and Bulgaria, are not. Our reactionary stance is so at odds with modern thinking on the subject that we may be be dragged before the United Nations after 2009 to explain why we are in breach of our obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

But the prospect of a dressing down in the UN's study is considered by our elected representatives to be much preferable to the thrashing they are likely to receive from the "political correctness gone mad" lobby, with its ugly conviction that society is going down the tubes through lack of discipline. On hitting children, all of the old timers come out in droves. Once it was "spare the rod and spoil the child", now it's "a quick clip over the ear never did me any harm". Even the language is dishonest. The word "smacking" trivialises the reality. "Slapping", "hitting" or "striking" sound much worse. No wonder those in favour of such practises prefer to use the coy alternatives.

It is depressing that Britain is so determined to remain a "smacking" country. It's not as if we are the best of parents. Remember that the UK just came bottom among 21 rich countries in Unicef's league table of child wellbeing. So if you believe that a "loving smack" administered "from time to time" is essential to the benevolent, successful upbringing of the nation's youth, it doesn't seem to be working.

Of course there is a major flaw in our thinking: the notion that disputes can be resolved by violence. How is a child meant to understand that it is OK for a parent to hit you, but that you are not allowed to kick or slap that boy who ran away with your scarf in the playground?

I was an anti-slapping parent, though not a saint. Once or twice I lost my cool and lashed out, something I instantly regretted and still do. Like all parents, if they care to examine their motives, I did so not because my children were behaving any worse than usual, but because I was on a short fuse. The fault was mine, not theirs. It was I who should have controlled and moderated my behaviour, not them. Most of the time though, I devised ingenious, alternative sanctions, like holding the Barbie dolls over an open bin. Most of the time, for most kids, a threat of deprivation of treats does the trick.

Children's charities will tell you that in a minority of cases, slaps and smacks can escalate into serious child abuse. For the majority of parents, though, smacking represents a lapse in effective parenting. Good parenting is a huge skill. Much of it rests on the parent's ability to anticipate problems and take forestalling action. Most children only really play up when they are tired, hungry, bored, becoming ill, or so hyped up on sugary snacks that they are almost bouncing off the ceiling. It is the role of parents to see that children have a sleeping/eating/working/playing routine that enables them to behave well. Children learn to behave as part of a constant process of education and socialisation within the family.

But good parenting requires a lot of effort, and we are becoming lazier and children are becoming lonelier and more isolated. Too many parents these days are wage slaves, putting in long hours to pay the crippling mortgage or the rent. When we get in from work, we are fit to collapse. Traditional family meals, where children and adults used to communicate, have made way for staggered eating. Small children spend hours semi-sedated on a diet of TV. Teenagers disappear into their bedrooms to watch their own personal TVs or conduct interminable conversations with angst-ridden friends on mobile phones.

I feel sorry for today's children. They don't get enough time from adults, are put under unremitting consumer pressure, and headed for constant dissatisfaction in a world where everything seems to hinge on what you have, and how you look. Far from having it too easy, I think they have it really hard.

By Joanna Blythman

Source: Sunday herald

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