HE had it coming to him. He’d been winding me up all day and now he was ignoring my earnest protestations that he modify his behaviour at the dinner table. When he threw a French fry on to the floor, I morphed into Wilson, the notorious hired gunslinger in the classic film Shane. I gave him a menacing stare. “Pick up the chip,” I said.
Sadly, being only four years old, my kid had never seen the movie and was thus blissfully unaware he was playing the role of the hapless homesteader, the runner-up in a deadly showdown. When he refused to accede to my demand, it triggered an unfortunate event. I grabbed him and slapped his backside twice. Wailing (as a consequence of the humiliation rather than any pain), he ran into his room. I felt awful.
For the majority of parents of my generation, smacking was deemed a perfectly reasonable way to discipline one’s issue. We were doing unto others what had been done to us by our fathers. I didn’t realise I’d been physically abused until someone told me quite recently. My dad regularly spanked my brother and me, but only as a last resort after we had chosen not to heed previous warnings. I don’t think it did me any harm but, as I carried on the smacking tradition, my children may demur.
In the war of bringing up children, God was on our side; after all, His bestseller stated that “whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them”. While dads relied on open palms to punish naughtiness, teachers were legally entitled to thrash a miscreant with a leather belt. Kids playing football in the street ran the risk of inviting the summary justice of being clipped across the lughole by a cop. It was the Golden Age of assaulting children with impunity.
To be fair, there existed pacifist parents who challenged society’s norms by implementing non-violent sanctions. Usually, these conscientious objectors also protested against the notion of gender-specific toys, courageously allowing their daughters to play with Action Man and their sons to push a dolly in a pram – little wonder, then, that their views on child-rearing could not be taken seriously. However, imperceptibly, striking a minor has become socially unacceptable. These days, a teacher or police officer who lays hands on a youngster is either given a fast-tracked P45 or makes his criminal career debut at the local sheriff court. For parents who still wish to give their child an over-the-knee spanking, there is a degree of wiggle room, as the law permits “reasonable chastisement”. It may seem a vague term, but in 1999 a judge delivered a guilty verdict on a primary teacher who had spanked his daughter in a dentist’s waiting room. Clearly, it is a highly subjective line that separates “reasonable chastisement” from “physical abuse”.
Pulling no punches, the Children’s Commissioner for England, Maggie Atkinson, has called for an end to all corporal punishment, pointing out that family pets have greater protection from violence under the law than children. As a former teacher, she knows that educators get by without resorting to physical aggression. In many ways, schools mimic sanctions employed by parents. Detention is the school equivalent of sending an excitable son to his room, the only difference being that the presence of other scamps has the potential to turn the school “cooler” into a hotbed of misbehaviour. Parents “bawl” into the faces of kids who have driven them to the end of their tether and a screaming teacher describes his outburst of anger as “a severe reprimand regarding future conduct”. Given the high degree of recidivism, it would be fair to say that the aforementioned sanctions are largely ineffective.
In an ideal world, smacking would be outlawed. However, bringing up children can be a stressful task and a parent may feel that a couple of light taps on the buttocks sends a stronger message than a string of venomous words spat out in anger. Criminalising such mums and dads would be a mistake. Families could lose out financially if the accused lost his/her job and undoubtedly social services would consider removing children from that environment.
While it may be a slap in the face for the Children’s Commissioner, “light-touch” smacking will probably remain the last tool in the box for frustrated parents.