Yes, I smack my kids too - but it's an admission of my failure
Once or month or so, something so enrages me that I push them or hold them deliberately roughly
Friday 21 May 1999
The unnamed man - a schoolteacher - turned out to have a name after all, which was subsequently plastered all over yesterday's Adultery News (aka the Daily Mail) and The Daily Telegraph. What help this will be to the child involved, I am not sure, so let us Independent, ethical types call him Mr Rod, the child-spanker. Because spanking was what he was doing. He didn't go for little Miss Rod with his fists, boots, large stick or blunt instrument.
Mr Rod was trying to persuade his daughter to have a troublesome tooth extracted. She was scared and reluctant and, according to Mr Rod, began "whimpering" in the waiting-room. They had been there for 40 minutes and they were no nearer getting her into the scary chair.
"It was a completely alien situation to me," said Mr Rod, after the trial. "I thought I would have to try something radical with her." The "something radical" was to pull down her knickers and hit her hard, several times, on the bare buttocks. "Daddy, please don't hit me," she cried, and a passing speech therapist heard her.
Why had Mr Rod behaved like this? I think he was humiliated in front of a fellow professional, and was panicking. "I was definitely upset and definitely flustered," he later admitted, "but no way did I lose my head."
Mr Rod's error is obvious. He did it in public. If he had only carried out his correction in the privacy of his own home, then there would have been no speech therapist, no arrest, no court case, no conviction. Certainly this was the reported view of a representative of one of the teaching unions - perhaps even the one that Mr Rod belongs to. Mr Tino Ferri of the NAS/ UWT in Scotland (ever the children's friend: when it's not for hitting them or excluding them where they're bad, it's for threatening industrial action against them when they're good) said: "If you took this to a logical conclusion we would be locking up half the parents in Scotland."
The depressing thing is that that Mr Ferri may be right. When I read of Mr Rod's conviction I did not see some alien being, whose actions were incomprehensible to me. I saw myself. Many of us are perilously close to being Mr Rod; we are child-hitters. Not child-beaters or child abusers, mind. We would be horrified if we raised a bruise or a weal. But, essentially, we think that it's OK to use the occasional mild bit of physical violence to discipline our children.
And we need not feel guilty, most of the time. Was it not our own Prime Minister, whose love for his children is undisputed and legendary, who affirmed that he too had given the occasional loving smack? Which sounds a lot healthier than that lazy lack of affection or interest that leads some parents to indulge or tolerate lousy behaviour by their children. That's why, last autumn, following a judgment in the European Court of Human Rights that children should have the same protection as adults, ministers insisted on retaining the right to smack.
There were sighs of relief then, from all but the child protection agencies. Wasn't this simply a common-sense refusal to allow the state to get too involved in the harmless hardships of family life? The British, almost uniquely, had no need of such laws.
So, I can do to my children what would get me into trouble if I did it to an adult. And I do. Once a month or so, something so enrages me that I smack one of them, or push them, or hold them deliberately roughly. I do it out of anger or impatience, when they have been provocative beyond reason, when they quarrel without cessation, when they are persistently disobedient. If I am sufficiently frightening, then their acquiescence follows remarkably quickly. Then, later that night, when they're asleep, I can gaze down at them with the deepest love you can imagine.
But the cold fact is that that I wasn't prepared to spend the time necessary to devise and implement ways of persuading them to behave better that didn't involve violence. And the smack was not an act of love but, at the moment it was administered, was an act of hate. It always is. It's a failure of love and imagination. Worse still, there can be something of an adrenaline rush when you permit yourself to act violently. In all other situations (save certain contact sports) our violent impulses are constrained. Smacking can give you a kick.
And where would we be without it? Let us listen to Mr Rod again. He now argues that he is confused; if you're not allowed to hit your own children, then what are you allowed to do? "I'm now frightened," he says, "to discipline my children at all. One sudden move on my part could be interpreted as aggression. Many teachers and parents will be looking over their shoulders." So there we are. If we cannot smack, how can we keep control? Yet how many times have you heard the phrase that X is "too old to smack"? Or, "she's so big, she'll hit me back"? There's no real difficulty in drawing a line. Just imagine that the child will retaliate.
Part of the trouble here is the language. The whole notion of a "loving smack" is an oxymoron. Except, of course, for those adults who consensually enjoy a life of leather, straps and nipple-clamps. It is much worse, however, when such linguistic nonsense permeates the law itself.
At the moment we specifically protect the right of parents to administer "reasonable chastisement". Reasonable chastisement! The two words cannot go together. Either reason is being used, or chastisement. They are like peace and war; the latter marks the complete end of the former. Reason takes time and patience - it means persuasion and negotiation. Chastisement means you have finished with reason.
Oh, and by the way, let us dispose with the "life-threatening situation" canard. There is every difference in the world between holding a struggling child firmly in your arms, and hitting him or her. My contention, as a hitter myself, is that I never "need" to do it. Nor would it take an excess of saintliness on my part to give it up. A bit more thought, however, might do the trick.
So I am heartened by the conviction of poor Mr Rod. It represents one step along the way to agreeing that children - like adults - have the right not to be hit. If we are afraid of ambiguity, then let there be none; let us simply outlaw all violence against kids. Then we will all know where we stand. I for one could do with help, because I really think that I must change. I must never do it again. And nor must you.
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
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