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Tuesday, 18 January, 2000, 15:04 GMT
Head to Head: Should parents be allowed to smack?

To smack or not to smack. The issue of whether parents should have the right to physically chastise their children or not has raised its head again with the release of a new Department of Health consultation document.

Children are protected by law from harsh punishment and violent abuse by parents and others.

Further legislation to outlaw all physical correction of children in the home would criminalise parents who judge that a smack or threatened smack on the leg or bottom may be appropriate corrective punishment for specified misdemeanours.

This would open stable, loving families to an unprecedented state of intrusion and could mean the imprisonment of responsible, caring parents.

The Children are Unbeatable Alliance seeks to equate a smack with violent assault and consistently use words such as "hit" or "assault" when discussing parental smacking.

A corrective smack on the bottom from a responsible and loving parent is clearly different, both in degree and intention, from a fist in the face or blow on the chest or back.

Most parents would resent this manipulation of language. It also trivialises serious child abuse.

Family Education Trust welcomes the DoH decision to respect parents' judgement on the appropriate disciplining of children. A number of prosecutions for parental smacking or restraint have been reported over the past year.

These have caused great distress to the families involved, especially the children. They have also wasted the time and resources of courts and social services, as well as public money, all of which is urgently needed to help seriously abused children.

There is however an argument against DoH proposals to criminalise parents who use a slipper or instrument other than the hand to smack their children. Some parents regard the hand as caring and healing.

A slipper or wooden spoon can be seen as an impartial instrument which marks a boundary.

It can be used as a warning when behaviour gets out of hand and, since such a warning is usually heeded, the child is corrected without chastisement.

Many parents who have the sanction of smacking, never smack their children. We believe that parents should be judged competent to make such decisions with their families without political interference.

Cornelia Oddie, Family Education Trust (Family and Youth Concern)

As we enter the 21st Century it is surely extraordinary that we are arguing over how much we can hit our children - should parents only be allowed to hit children as long as they don't leave bruising or cause injury to children's eyes or brain?

Should parents be stopped from using canes or belts but allowed to use their open hands?

Should the fact that the child is a boy or a girl make a difference to how much a child gets hit?

These kind of questions simply miss the whole point of how we should be treating our children - in ways that show that we respect them, that are effective in teaching them the difference between right and wrong and that help to reduce the level of violence in society rather than contributing to it.

Hitting children does none of these things.

Save the Children argues that only a complete ban on smacking can:

  • Offer proper protection to children by giving an unambiguous signal to parents about what is permitted. Anything else leaves parents confused as to what might be 'inside' the law and what might be "outside". Parents who find it difficult to understand the difference between a mild rebuke and a damaging beating, or who go too far, will feel that the law is on their side.

  • Anything less than a ban on smacking means many parents will continue to assume that hitting their children is their only option. In fact there are many other ways of disciplining children which are more effective and which teach children self discipline without hurting them.

  • Give children the same protection from assault as adults. Surely children - who are smaller and more vulnerable - should receive at least the same protection as adults? Yet without a ban on smacking we are saying that their human rights to be protected from violence count for less than adults.

  • Give children the right messages about the use of violence. No one wants children to grow up in a violent society but, inside the very place where they should be safest, we teach them that hurting someone is the answer to problems.

Judy Lister, UK director of Save the Children

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