Parenting discipline: Smacking is it really so bad?

Most parents have lashed out at their children - and then felt guilty. Are they being too hard on themselves? Joanna Moorhead investigates
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What do you think, I ask my husband. I'm writing about smacking children. Should I admit to smacking Miranda (our often intensely annoying eight-year-old tomboy daughter). "Well," says Gary, "I think it's OK to admit to having done it once, but I don't think you should admit to the regularity with which we do it..."

He's joking, of course. (Or is he? She does drive us to distraction; there are times when we've lashed out. How often is too often?) But here's the point: smacking your kids has become socially unacceptable - at least, in middle-class suburbs like ours.

Once in a while, over a cup of coffee, you can admit sotto voce to your closest friend that you completely lost it the other day and, in the midst of a terrible battle with your child, gave him or her a tap on the leg or the bottom. Your voice has to be laden with contrition and you must always, always end with the words: "To be honest, it made me feel like a rubbish parent and a total failure."

But are we selling ourselves short? Tana Ramsay, wife of Gordon, seems to think so: she didn't sound ashamed of herself when she said in an interview last week that she smacks their four kids. "I have smacked bottoms. They've been warned, so I've had to carry out threats," she said. Unlike Tony Blair, who once said he had smacked his older children but didn't believe in it any more, Tana wasn't apologising.

Nor are most of the parents in I Smack and I'm Proud, an ITV documentary next week that talks to parents who believe that smacking once in a while is a perfectly acceptable method of letting your child know who's boss - "nature's way" of instilling discipline.

"We've built up a complicated process of discipline that involves time out and confining them to their bedrooms," says one parent, who smacked her six children and feels it worked well. "But what do you do if they won't go to their bedroom? You have to work out other strategies, and all the while you're losing ground and floundering and the child is getting the upper hand. That's what works about smacking: it's instant, it's quickly over and it's unequivocal. And in my experience, they learn, and learn fast."

That mother - let's call her Camilla - isn't in I Smack and I'm Proud, but she'd have been perfect. The programme features parents who have no shame in smacking their kids because they believe it gets across a message about bad behaviour in a way that other sanctions don't.

It's unfortunate that some of the smacking proponents are a bit the wrong side of spooky. You wouldn't want to meet Angela Davis on a dark night. She stares hard, she shouts loud, her constant refrain to her three kids, aged 14, 11 and 10, is "enough, enough!" She is rarely seen without the plastic spatula that's either being slapped noisily across her kitchen table or one of her kids' bodies. It's not pretty, but does it work? Davis thinks so: "You don't listen, you get whacked and that's it. This is my home and, as long as they live with me, I'm in control."

Mark and Jenny seem sensible, loving and well-balanced: they have five children aged six to 17 and are committed Christians. For them, discipline involves the possibility of a smack. "If we decide that the child is being wilfully disobedient and they need a smacked bottom then we would normally take them into another room and say, 'Mummy and Daddy need to have a little talk with you now' and explain what it is they've done wrong and give them a smacked bottom," says Jenny. Cuddles, she says, always follow.

My friend Camilla, a mother of six, is a doctor and one of the most sensible mums you could hope to meet. "I believe children will test boundaries, not just to check whether they can get through but to check they can't get through," she says. "It's essential for their psychological well-being that you let them know where those boundaries are and a smack is a clear boundary. I started from around the time they could walk and from around school-age they mostly didn't need it any more, because they had learnt where the boundaries are. I know there's a shame agenda, but I think if there's enough love in a family, it's probably going to be all right."

Our sense that smacking verges on child abuse is helped along by legislation to control first teachers' and then parents' right to use physical punishment. Currently, parents can be prosecuted if they administer a smack that leaves a mark or causes permanent damage but the Government stopped short of a total ban despite vociferous campaigning by a raft of children's charities.

"Children's rights campaigners would like to criminalise any parent who administers any smack," says Simon Calvert of the Christian Institute, a charity promoting Christian values, which does not to support a ban. "But we say, child abuse is already illegal: and the laws that exist are enough to protect children who are genuinely abused. We don't need to start clogging up the courts with non-abusive parents: what that could very well mean is that abusive parents slip through the net. Many good parents have known for years that there's a time and a place when a quickly administered smack can help a child to learn, and learn quickly."

Child psychologists disagree. I couldn't find one who was willing to defend smacking, and plenty wanted to warn against it. Such as Karen Jones, an educational psychologist from Halifax, West Yorkshire. If smacking is done in anger, she warns, it models a parent who has lost it and we want to teach our kids to be able to cope. If it is done coolly, it signifies a level of emotional disengagement that seems almost superhuman.

Yet her arguments go against the gut instincts of many sane, caring parents. I'm not convinced smacking is always wrong, although like most parents I usually keep my views to myself and I'd never smack a child in public. Which makes me think that smacking is as good as outlawed already - who would be seen at the checkout giving a sharp thwack? And maybe, just maybe, we're the poorer for it...

I Smack and I'm Proud goes out on ITV 1 on Thursday September 21 at 9pm