Last week, the Welsh Assembly voted to back a ban on smacking children. While the Assembly has no actual powers to impose such a ban, it is a strong political statement in support of anti-smacking legislation.
"Animals have more protection under the law," said Lib Dem Kirsty Williams, who instigated the vote. Williams insisted that a smacking ban is "not about punishing parents, it's about nurturing parents and nurturing children."
That's quite a bold claim. That a piece of legislation would "nurture" people into becoming better parents. But is Kirsty Williams in fact trying to legislate the unlegislatable...?
Back in June of last year, two influential Parliamentary committees (the Health Committee and the Human Rights Committee) called for a ban on parental smacking. Claire Rayner, who's the spokesperson for the Children Are Unbeatable Alliance, agreed: "Hitting children is wrong and the law should say so in the interests of children's rights."
Liz Atkins, head of policy at the NSPCC, also backed new legislation: "We urge MPs to convert their clear concern about the risks to children from physical punishment into legal reform that will also help protect them from abuse."
The response from Number 10 was forthright: "The Government believes most parents understand there is a clear and fundamental difference between discipline and abuse and know where the line lies between them. We do not believe criminalising parents is the right way to go about this. We do believe parents have a common sense understanding in this area."
A dangerous precedent: to defer to 'common sense' as if there existed some kind of public consensus of right-thinking. (Capital punishment anyone? Shall we have a show of hands?) But the Government is right to say that we can't start "criminalising parents" - there is a crucial difference between 'right and wrong' and 'legal and illegal', and there have to be some areas of life where rightness and wrongness are still meaningful, but where the law can't impinge. What goes on inside a family is not outside the law, but families are messy, ugly and confusing things, and children drink too many sugary drinks; and the reality is that in the natural course of a perfectly happy and balanced family's existence, someone might get a slap.
(This is what makes a smacking ban so different from a hunting ban. Hunting doesn't just 'happen'. If you're going hunting, you have to dress up in shiny boots and toot your horn and shout "view halloo!" - it isn't a case of people 'lashing out' at the fox in a moment of madness).
It is thoroughly misleading for anti-slapping campaigners to bandy around the name Victoria Climbie (as they always do, in much the same way that anti-drugs campaigners use the name Leah Betts) - and to treat all slaps as 'child abuse' is to render meaningless the term. The kind of abuse that Victoria Climbie suffered cannot occur in a happy, loving family. But the occasional slap can. (Which is not to condone slapping, but to protect families - it mustn't be forgotten that families need protecting too, not just children).
Kirsty Williams says that a smacking ban would be "nurturing" for parents and children, but if the law becomes too absolutist on the subject of family discipline, then the risk is that families will be ruined rather than nurtured. Ruined in the same way that schools have been ruined: by the removal of discipline through fear of legislative action.
On this point, a personal anecdote: this particular TFT contributor was an extremely ill-behaved schoolboy, and on one occasion was being divisive and awkward in a Latin lesson. The Latin teacher was driven halfway to distraction, a clip round the ears was delivered, a young head jolted forward, a face hit a desk, a lip was split, and blood ran down an ill-behaved chin. The teacher, a reasonably stern yet kindly person (who had never hit a pupil before, as far as we could remember) was absolutely mortified. But no harm was done. It was a tiny cut. It was thoroughly deserved. This Latin teacher was brilliant at his job; should he have lost it because he once lost his temper and lashed out at a dreadfully annoying child?
To return to families - it almost goes without saying that anyone who routinely hits their child is doing a very very very bad thing. People shouldn't hit children. It's the lowest form of violence. People who beat their kids are generally just working out some pathetic pattern of abuse. It's sad, small and dangerous behaviour, and can tarnish the beaten child's personality for life.
But can all violence towards a child be termed 'abuse'? This is the key question. And if not every act of violence (every squeeze of the wrist, every slap of the knee) is abuse, then where exactly do you draw the line between physical discipline and criminal behaviour? Are we allowing serious child abuse to go on under the guise of normal parenting? Are abusers getting off the hook by using the 'reasonable chastisement' defence? And wouldn't a total ban remove that possibility?
Well, yes it would - but at what cost? A total ban is attacking the problem from the wrong end. The problem isn't whether or not a parent should be able to clip a child's ear - the problem is one of definition: at what *point* does discipline becomes abuse? (Because at some point it certainly does: due either to the intensity or the regularity of the assault). And this is where the benefit of the doubt should be given to the child. The definition of what constitutes abuse should be widened, an assault upon a child should be harder to defend.
There should be a spectrum of response which matches the spectrum of discipline. If a parent is routinely hitting a child, then something is wrong, and the child needs to be protected - where there is any doubt that a child is suffering, then there should be intervention. The response should be commensurate with the seriousness of the suffering. And at this point we have (like the Government) to trust to common sense: the common sense of the
That might sound like a very bad idea, but it's the best we can do.