Smack Habit

The recent proposal to change the law on smacking saw the same old arguments trotted out on both sides of the debate. I imagine we will see a re-run of this argument year on year until smacking is finally banned, as I imagine it eventually will.

Personally, I hope I never smack my son. I certainly don’t intend to, although I guess you should never say never. It is not that I think it is a terrible thing to administer a light smack now and then; I just think that if a child is to learn right from wrong they should understand why doing something is wrong. I feel that if a child behaves itself just because they fear they will get a slap if they misbehave, then they will not really learn anything other than that violence and the threat of violence is a useful tool in life.

The usual argument against a ban is the old nanny state argument; that it is not the job of Government to interfere in the family. This seems a very poor argument to me. The Government does interfere in the family already; to put it crassly, you are not allowed to stab your child for example, and I would imagine that pro-smackers would not suggest the state should not be involved at all in the family; it is just a matter of where the line is drawn. Some people believe that the law should allow them to act in a certain way with their own children; if they were to do the same to an adult, or someone else’s child, it would be considered either criminal or common assault. Funny then that a great many criminal assaults could, put another way, be considered the result of a fight between 2 consenting adults; it could be argued that the state has less right to interfere in these circumstances than in the case of a adult hitting a child, where the child does not consent and is effectively powerless to hit back.

An argument put by Janet Daley amongst others last week was to say “what else other than a smack will teach a child a lesson when they have run into a busy road?”. The pure wrongheadedness of this defence of smacking I find mindboggling. If you are unable to explain to a child why running into the road is dangerous, then you have to worry about the communication skills of the parent. Too often it seems to me that smacking is just the lazy option. Pro-smackers will talk of how a light smack admistered in a loving family environment is perfectly all right; but how often have you seen a smack administered in a supermarket, say, which is nothing to do with loving family discipline, and everything to do with a rattled and stressed parent losing it with their child, often because the child, though perhaps a bit noisy, is not obviously doing something wrong?

However, for all these points, I cannot support a full ban on smacking. Despite my own preference, I feel uncomfortable with legislation which would prevent other people from administering corporal punishment. The reason I think is purely cultural. I was smacked as a child, and to use the popular cliche, it never did me any harm. I really cannot agree that a smack is tantamount to child abuse, as some people seem to be saying, and I would doubt there are many, if any, cases where instances of actual child abuse can be traced back to a parent first smacking a child, then beating their child, and developing to other forms of violence over time. Such things surely have other root causes.

There also seems to be no great public pressure for all forms of smacking to be banned, and I am always wary when the Legislature is trying to run ahead of public opinion, although I am quite happy to be a total hypocrite on this matter when it suits me (for example, on Capital Punishment). But I think public opinion on this matter will change over time; I would imagine that most people of my generation were smacked. I would bet (and I have nothing to really back this up other than a hunch) that far fewer of my sons generation will have been smacked, and so they may grow up viewing the common law defence of smacking children as we now view the common law defence of smacking wives and servants. When public opinion backs a full ban, then maybe things will change.

But that will be a while off yet. Should the new bill pass through the Lords it will be reviewed in 2 years time, but as the vote on a full ban was defeated by 424 votes to 75 I cannot see there being much change. So I think we will be waiting at least a generation or so until a full ban can implemented; plenty of time, you would think, for those ardent supporters of smacking to think up better arguments than they currently rely on.