Should smacking be illegal?

Posted by Samantha on January 31, 2012 in Anger, Discipline, Punishment |

So I’m about to wade into one of the most controversial parenting topics there is: should smacking children be made illegal?

Here’s the article that has forced my hand:

For the record, I don’t like the tone of this article.  My position is that smacking children is wrong.  I also think it would be wrong to make it illegal.  I also believe that we do not need to make it illegal to send the clear message that smacking is not condoned.

This topic is also pertinent for me because two weeks ago, in Week 2 of the 10 week parenting course that I deliver, we covered discipline techniques.

We do an interesting exercise where parents write down all the discipline techniques they can think of – not necessarily that they use – and then they put them onto a flip chart in one of two columns: positive discipline (fair, firm, consistent, kind) or negative discipline (unfair, critical, inconsistent, harsh).

There is always debate about certain techniques and many end up on the line between the two columns.  “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it” is a catchphrase we inevitably discuss.

Two weeks ago, one member of our group was talking about a radio show she heard where someone was defending the benefits of smacking as a disciplinary tool.  After general agreement that smacking wasn’t ok and a vague consensus (but with no real discussion) that no-one in the group condoned it, the group settled into a vaguely uneasy silence while this lady made efforts to explain that she was only acting as devil’s advocate.

And so I told the story of how last summer my daughter, in a fit of pique, smashed my brand new laptop screen while swinging the cat’s lead in circles and inadvertently making contact between the screen and the heavy metal clasp of the lead.  She had been aiming for her brother, not my laptop.

I smacked her.  With my hand.  On her fully covered bottom.

Now they were interested.  Did I feel awful afterwards?  What did she do?  Did I say sorry?  How long did I feel awful for?

I answered the questions.  And I wondered if I’d gone too far with my disclosure.

And yet, little by little since then, other members of the group have started to come forward with some of their worst family moments.  And, as I knew from the research evidence, I am not the only one in the group who has smacked their child or children.

There are people in the UK who strongly believe that my action that day last summer should be illegal.

The British Psychological Society have stated that the damage done by hitting a child depends on “the motivation, the circmstances, the anger and the physical and psychological damage”.  Interestingly, my daughter seemed to quickly accept that given the circumstances, my action was understandable and forgiveable.

As I’ve said already, I do not believe it is necessary to make smacking punishable by law in order to send the message that it is not acceptable parenting practice.

To my mind, it makes no sense and smacks of hypocrisy (if you’ll pardon the pun) to tell parents that the punitive disciplinary technique of smacking is wrong, and then to punish those who do smack with negative discipline.

Parents need to be allowed their mistakes.  We have laws to deal with child abuse in place already.  Reducing the kinds of parenting behaviours that fall somewhere between discipline and abuse will require us to start talking about them openly. That is why I am sharing this story today.

Furthermore, I have long believed there is much sense in the MP and former minister’s assertion that if we take this disciplinary technique away (without replacing it with anything else) some parents will be left with nothing effective with which to guide their children.  Will we be happy to pay for the ongoing education and support of parents while they are unlearning years of conditioning and doing the difficult work of learning new, positive responses?

We also need to discuss the unanticipated negative side-effect of the false empowerment of children who, for example, realised that teachers could be threatened into ineffectualness when it became illegal in the UK for them to touch children.  We are now unpicking that law.

I am hopeful that one day we will achieve a society where children are not hit by adults whether in rage or to make a point.  But we will get there one step at a time.

I fail to see what we have to gain by further shaming parents for those occasions when the good judgement of their neo-cortex deserts them and their lower-brain conditioning takes over.

My experience tells me that it is a rare parent who thinks smacking is in any way a reasonable solution.  In fact, though I have met many parents who were smacked by their parents and who think “it didn’t do me any harm”, not even one of them has ever wanted to smack their own children.  The majority of parents who were hit as children, say that the experience of being hit by a parent makes them certain that they do not want to do it to their own children.

For those of us who find ourselves in the position of trying to break cycles of abuse, or smacking, or raging, what we need is acceptance: acceptance that on occasion, we may parent as we were parented.  When it happens, we can brush ourselves off, make amends, and somehow find the courage and strength to keep moving forward.

We can know that hitting children is wrong.  And that two wrongs do not make a right.

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