Is it ever OK to inflict pain on a child to try to change their behaviour? It is a debate that has rumbled on for decades, yet if the minister responsible for children doesn’t see the harm in it, then we are no closer to ending it.
Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, said this week that he doesn’t want to ban smacking in England because we could “end up in a world where the state is nannying people about how they bring up their children”. Zahawi’s nine-year-old daughter is lightly smacked, he said, when her behaviour justifies the punishment.
In England, it is still legal for parents to hit their children, so long as it is a “reasonable punishment” in the name of discipline – a marker of which tends to hinge on whether the smack leaves a mark, such as a bruise. It became illegal to hit, smack or slap children in Wales last month. The same actions were outlawed in Scotland in November 2020. The education secretary’s remarks came after calls from the children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza, to introduce the same ban in England.
The evidence against smacking children is unequivocal. A recent meta-analysis of more than 160,000 children found that hitting them as a form of discipline is ineffective at positively changing behaviour, in the short and the long term. The analysis also found that children who were disciplined with physical punishment were more likely to become aggressive, display antisocial behaviour and exhibit mental health problems as they grew.
The problem with smacking is that it punishes children for problematic behaviour, yet does nothing to help them to solve it. If children are too young to understand a conversation about more appropriate ways to behave, then they are certainly too young to understand why they have been hit by their parent. Conversely, if they are old enough to understand the conversation, then there is no need to hit them.
There are, of course, the moral issues. It is illegal for us to hit our partners, our friends, colleagues, strangers and even our dogs. Why, then, is it ever deemed appropriate to hit our children, the smallest and most vulnerable members of society, who are arguably the most deserving of our protection? It is nonsensical.
Those who defend smacking often cite the flawed logic that physical discipline will teach children respect. Yet what it really teaches is fear. True respect can only ever be earned. The best way to teach children to respect us, as parents, is to treat them with respect first, something that can be done easily alongside mindfully enforced boundaries and teaching better behaviour.
The government’s stance on childcare reveals its character – and it’s ugly as hell
A YouGov poll recently found that 83% of adults were hit by their parents at least once as children. While younger adults are less likely to have been smacked than older ones, physical punishment of children is still alarmingly common today. One of the biggest barriers to ruling out smacking altogether is that any debate on it quickly elicits proclamations of, “It never did me any harm!” The shadow education secretary, Wes Streeting, provided a classic example this week, speaking in defence of his own parents hitting him occasionally as a child.
But are people who were smacked qualified to assess any harm smacking may have caused them as a child – or indeed the lack thereof. Those who were hit have no idea how they may have turned out without physical punishment. Then there’s cognitive dissonance, where it is too painful to consider the thought that our own parents may have mistreated us. Instead, we rush in with statements of how we “deserved it” and – in Streeting’s case – that his were “good parents” and that attitudes are changing.
No child deserves to be hit by an adult – and there is no behaviour worthy of smacking. Those who justify the morality of it based upon their own upbringing are surely indicating that it has, in fact, harmed them.
Is the answer to make smacking illegal in England in line with Wales and Scotland? Yes, partly. Without a doubt, children deserve to be protected. Merely criminalising the behaviour, however, without educating parents in more effective and gentler discipline methods, or better supporting them so they do not find themselves in the depths of despair that so often lead to smacking as a last resort, is hugely problematic. There is still much work to be done, but in 2022 it is surely time to end the debate and finally focus instead on solutions and alternatives.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith is a mother of four and the author of 13 parenting books, including How to be a Calm Parent
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