For days I’ve been telling myself: “I will not write about smacking,” but sometimes a subject dominates the agenda to such a degree it’s impossible to avoid, and anyway you realise you have something you want to articulate, however hard it might be to do so. My reluctance has been two-fold. Firstly, it touches on parts of my life I would rather not revisit; and secondly it has become another of those polarised subjects on which it is almost impossible to express an opinion without incurring the wrath of one side or the other.
So, I’m going to start by clarifying my position: I am glad the Scottish Government has decided to back John Finnie’s Equal Protection from Assault Bill; it was the right and proper thing to do.
Hitting children is ineffective and wrong and the defence of “justifiable assault”, which it will remove, is grotesque. I also understand that the point of the bill is not to criminalise hard-pressed mums and dads, but to send out a message to society about what constitutes good parenting.
Smacking is already illegal in around 50 countries and violates the terms of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, so it is incumbent on us to take action. And we know legislation can be used to effect a cultural shift because that’s what happened with the smoking ban.
The pro-smacking campaign being waged by Be Reasonable, an alliance of right-wing religious groups such as the Christian Institute and libertarians such as Spiked, is once again stoking fears of state intrusion. But we don’t own our children and, having spoken to Finnie and others, I know the focus is on making sure those who find it difficult to control them are taught better strategies. Children’s charities – including Children 1st and Barnardo’s – have also spoken of the importance of helping to heal fractured families.
Unfortunately, though, not all of the potential fall-out from the bill can be controlled by politicians; the message that eventually embeds itself in the public consciousness may be less empathetic and more accusatory than at first intended.
Already this week, I have noticed a degree of sanctimony from some of those who support the change to the legislation. On radio phone-ins and on Twitter, people have spoken in smug and condescending tones about anyone who has ever so much as raised a finger to their offspring.
Comments I have encountered include: “I managed to bring up my child without resorting to violence”; “If you can’t control your wean without hitting them you are failing”; and “Parents who physically chastise their children are just too bone idle to think of a more positive alternative.”
Yet I will wager those people without sympathy have never been stuck in the house for days on end with three or more fractious children under seven; they’ve never tried to breastfeed a screaming newborn while their toddlers tip out the contents of the fridge on the kitchen floor.
I will wager they have never caressed and cajoled and tried every strategy from distraction to star charts to the naughty step to no avail; they have never been isolated or depressed or been pushed beyond their limits by manipulative teenagers; they have never been so poor, they worried they would have no food come Friday.
Though I do not have the excuse of deprivation, I have, at particular low points, when all my resources have been used up, smacked all three of my children (though not in the past five years). I have never smacked them hard – a slap on the back of the hand, mostly – but still, enough for it to be wrong; enough for me to be consumed by remorse.
I have, of course, spent much more of my time doing loving things, like cuddling them, reading to them, taking them to the park and sitting up all night with them when they were ill. But parenting doesn’t come with a set of scales so you can offset a bad deed with a good one. If I could edit the story of my life, I would; unfortunately I am stuck with the less-than-perfect one I filed some time ago.
The thing is, I reckon most parents who smack their children now and again are like me. They are not people who endorse physical chastisement as an acceptable or effective form of discipline. They are people who have lashed out under pressure and are drowning in shame.
My fear is that in overstating the potential impact of their behaviour, we risk characterising largely loving households as dysfunctional. Or that by further stigmatising those who are struggling as “feckless” or “failures”, we will make it harder for them to get in touch with their health visitor or GP.
Despite reassurances, I am also concerned more parents will find their way into the Criminal Justice System. Even as the law stands, some of those who smack are the subject of reports to the procurator fiscal. Though most are dealt with through diversion schemes rather than the courts, I wonder how contact with the police and CJS social workers can do anything other than compound their existing problems. A better alternative would be to identify struggling families at an earlier stage and step in long before they reach the smacking stage.
So what am I saying? Not that Finnie’s bill is in any way misguided, just that it would be good if those involved were careful about the rhetoric they use to promote it.
Changing the culture on smacking is an admirable objective, but if, in order to do so, we portray it as a great social evil – the kind of thing only very “bad” parents would do – we risk driving it underground.
Casting those who offend as pariahs also makes it easier to ignore those social factors – deprivation, isolation, long working hours – which make parenting such a challenge. We should be empowering mums and dads by increasing their confidence not reinforcing their sense of inadequacy.
To this end, I hope Finnie’s bill will be accompanied by a public awareness campaign that not only explains that smacking is unacceptable, but actively encourages parents to seek out support services. Moreover, with budget cuts having impacted heavily on local authorities and the third sector, I hope sufficient funding is put in place to ensure those support services continue to exist.