We need more discipline at home but that doesn’t mean smacking

London, (Parliament Politics Magazine) – The Great Smacking Debate . In recent years Scotland and Wales have both banned “smacking” – the use of physical discipline against children – yet England and Northern Ireland have no plans to follow suit.

Those supporting the ban equate the use of physical discipline as nothing but a form of abuse, that should be consigned to the dustbin of history, while those defending the ban say outlawing smacking is another example of the nanny state gone mad and that polling shows the public do not support parents being criminalised.

Against this background have been interventions by the Children’s Commissioner for England along with a several Members of Parliament, who believe this is a subject that should be debated.

To shed some light on this issue, Politics Magazine asked two of the UK’s leading campaigners, Frank Young from Civitas, who supports a ban and Ciaran Kelly from the Be Reasonable Campaign, who opposes a ban, to explain what their concerns are and to take a side in the Great Smacking Debate.

A smacking ban is on its way, the drum beat will get louder as the enormous advocacy departments of children’s charities come together to demand legislation. Our children are officially the most unruly in Europe but this will be the issue that will dominate debate.

At some point soon an amendment will be laid and pressure will mount for the government to accept it. In truth smacking your children is already banned in England. All that remains in law is an excuse of ‘reasonable punishment’ contained in the Children’s Act 2004. Take a look at bizarre CPS guidance on this issue and prosecutors are told that any injury to a child should be “trifling”.

The defence of reasonable punishment has been on the statute books since 1690 but time and attitudes have moved on. Smacking is a practice going out of fashion but there remain a sizeable number of children, estimates suggest one in ten, who report being regularly smacked, with physical punishment used on toddlers more than children.

The question MPs will have to wrestle with is not whether or not we close this loophole of “reasonable punishment.” Addressing this anomaly would put children in the same legal position as dogs and adults. We don’t allow striking other adults or animals for good reason, we judge that it is too harsh, too violent and brutish. Legislation is often a case of judgement, we haven’t yet perfected the MP algorithm, but if we are to make a judgement it should be on the side of removing the right to physically punish a child.

We need more discipline at home but that doesn’t mean smacking. We are all better off if parents do their job well. We will also pretend it is a great moment of social progress, but it isn’t. More parents staying together would make a bigger difference, Britain is a world leader in parents splitting up but no children’s charity will tell you that though.

There is no evidence from countries that have reformed the law that more parents will be criminalised. Prosecutors will still make judgements based on the public interest and arresting otherwise, decent law abiding parents will not meet that test. We struggle to catch burglars in this country it’s doubtful police will decide to open up whole new areas for thinly stretched beat cops.

The difficulty for many MPs and noble lords, particularly on the Conservative benches, will be the jump from disapproving of an action and banning that action in law. But this is not a case of simply parenting styles and the freedom to parent as we might wish. We know enough now to understand the psychological damage of being physically punished. We certainly know enough to act. So called, ‘harsh parenting’ isn’t just another a little further along on a spectrum of parenting styles. There is plenty of high quality evidence that it causes problem and is far from neutral.

We most definitely need better parenting but that shouldn’t mean raising your hand to a child. We know enough now to know that harsh parenting isn’t the same as good parenting. Enough evidence shows that harsh parenting leads to more wayward children. Closing the loophole that allows smacking will start to change the culture around parenting, this is not some fanciful notion, a similar process happened with cigarettes when we understood the harm they cause.

Opponents will cringe at our entry into the family home. I say more of it. What are we doing about parents making their children obese, parents allowing children to watch violent sex online and sharing grotesque sexual images in the name of adolescent titillation.

Smacking it is as brutish an act as striking a dog or an adult which we outlaw and as such right minded people simply don’t do it. The occasional smacker who does so out of frustration will stop. It is the face slappers and pinchers who need the clarity of criminalisation. A tightening of the law won’t punish everyday parents. The international evidence shows they will get on with the job regardless but it might stamp out the harsh parents. We need more discipline, not less but that doesn’t mean smacking is reasonable.


Frank Young is editorial director at the Civitas think tank





Frank Young

Frank Young works for a leading Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity