The State should not try to impose a singular view on how parents behave and use the criminal law as a weapon to enforce its will, writes Murdo Fraser.
There are few things more rewarding, and challenging, in life than being a parent. As any mother or father knows, it is a momentous responsibility to be handed a new human life and know that, for the next 18 years or so, your own interests have to take second place to ensuring that this other person turns into a happy, mature, balanced, adult.
Some of us will fail at that, despite our best efforts. But I like to think that all parents will try their hardest to secure the most positive outcomes for their children. And part of that parenting process means being prepared to say “No” to our offspring, and encourage them in good behaviour rather than bad.
We discipline children not because we hate them or want to hurt them, but for precisely the opposite reason – we love them, and want to protect them. They might see our correction as hurtful or unfair, but as adults we have a broader perspective and a desire to see them learn that selfish, or even dangerous, behaviour, has negative consequences. Far better that lesson is learned at a young age than when a person develops into adulthood.
These are the very issues being considered this week at Holyrood, with the Stage 1 Debate on John Finnie MSP’s Member’s Bill seeking to ban smacking of children, or to give it its official title, the Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Bill.
The full title is significant, because it points to what the Bill’s proposer is trying to achieve: to give children the same rights as adults. Yet, to me, this highlights one of the key defects in the reasoning behind the drive to ban smacking. Because children are not just mini adults, they are treated differently in the law, and for good reason.
The Scottish Parliament has just voted to raise the age of criminal responsibility from eight to 12, recognising that there are serious and significant differences between how we should treat youngsters compared to adults, particularly in the field of criminal justice. But the anti-smacking legislation seems to be taking us in entirely the opposite direction.
Children must have things done for them all the time, and on occasion be made to do things that they might not want. So, for example, children will be made by adults to go to bed a particular time; to eat food they might not particularly like; to attend school; to do their homework; to be prevented from watching videos or playing games that might be unsuitable. Given the choice, most children would prefer to be left to make their own choices on these matters, but as parents we decide what is best for them. No-one would consider it reasonable that any adult would be treated in this manner.
Similarly, where parents choose not to smack their children, they will (except in the cases of the most liberal of families) discipline their children in other ways. The very young might be put on a naughty step; older children might be grounded and prevented from seeing their friends, or deprived of screen time. We would never dream of treating an older person in such a manner, and indeed it would amount to domestic abuse if an adult were to try to treat their partner in this fashion. Yet, for children, there is an overwhelming consensus that such measures are necessary.
So when the proponents of the smacking ban ask, “If you wouldn’t smack an adult, why should you be free to smack a child?”, the answer is a simple one: we treat children differently. If we are to give children the same rights as adults, does that not then lead us to banning all forms of child punishment?
As a parent, I have never found smacking a means of effective discipline. Research would suggest that that is a stance that is shared by a growing percentage of the Scottish population. But just because I don’t believe in smacking children, I do not think it makes sense to arrest parents who do.
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Creating new laws, particularly ones which in effect establish a new criminal offence, should only ever be a response to a serious social ill which cannot be cured by other means. But there is no evidence of a growing incidence of gentle parental smacking in Scotland, and the evidence that any children are being harmed by this is highly contentious at best.
What this legislation does do is risk criminalising those who are simply loving parents. As those who gave evidence to the Parliamentary Committee considering the Bill made clear, there is likely to be a significant additional burden upon prosecutors, on the police, and on social work departments, if this Bill becomes law. This has a real risk of diverting already stretched resources away from dealing with real and serious issues of child abuse. In a free, liberal, and democratic society, we have to accept that not everyone will always share the same views. That applies as much to approaches to parenting as it does to a whole range of other issues of social policy. For the State to try to impose a singular view on how parents should behave, and use the criminal law as a weapon to enforce its will, is at best a disproportionate response.
I fully expect that parental smacking of children will be banned in Scotland, but I am far from convinced that those voting for this change have properly considered all the implications.
Far better, in my view, to let families take these decisions for themselves, and instead concentrate on tackling the desperate blight on our society that is the real abuse of our children.
Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and will be writing a weekly column for The Scotsman