The emotive issue of smacking

I realised my four year-old son was cowering from me, his expression a mask of pure terror
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The Independent Online

About a year ago I was sent by a magazine to interview Dr Rowan Williams - then the Archbishop of Wales but soon to pack his bags for Lambeth Palace - over lunch in a Newport trattoria. It takes some nerve with a beard as full as his to order a large plate of pasta, but Dr Williams tucked in with gusto, while talking with passion and eloquence about matters both religious and secular. It was impossible to sit there and feel uninspired by his keen intellect, not to mention his manifest goodness, while the slight dab of vongole sauce on his whiskers seemed like an admirable sign of mortal frailty.

As for my line of questioning, I fear there may have been a whiff of the sixth form - had he ever broken one of the Ten Commandments? Been guilty of one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Smacked his children? Still, every question elicited a long, thoughtful answer. I wrote and filed the article. I felt that I presented him as a fine man, who would bring wit, wisdom and humanity as well as righteousness to the great office of Archbishop of Canterbury. As indeed he has.

Anyway, when the article appeared, the Daily Mail somehow constructed a substantial news story out of the Archbishop's admission to me that he had once smacked his daughter, but had subsequently felt terribly guilty about it. Dr Williams had elaborated by saying that he understood from personal experience how the pressure on a stressed parent could build and build to the point where a smack seemed the proper course of action. However, he was opposed to smacking, because he had since resolved that the right of a child not to be subjected to physical violence should be no less than that of an adult.

Clearly, Lambeth Palace was embarrassed by the Daily Mail's news story. A spokesman told the paper that in the Newport trattoria that day, the Archbishop had been speaking off the record about smacking his daughter, which implied that I had behaved unethically by printing his comments. This was untrue. There was never a suggestion that he wanted anything he said to be off the record, and I had a tape of our conversation to prove it. But I wasn't named in the Mail, and there seemed no point in making a fuss. It wasn't a big deal.

I recall the episode now because it showed that even the Archbishop of Canterbury, or at any rate his official spokesman, is prepared to tell a fib to wriggle out of an embarrassing situation, no matter if it drops someone else in the soup. But I recall it too because it shows how extraordinarily emotive is the issue of smacking. I had thought that if a newspaper made anything of that interview, it would arise from the remarks Dr Williams made to me about the prospect of the Prince of Wales marrying Camilla Parker Bowles, a prospect which seemed not to perturb him.

But no. "Archbishop admits to smacking daughter" was the story, even though it had happened only once, and even though it was an incident he bitterly regretted. It wasn't as if he had owned up to a one-off, deeply regrettable incident with a lap-dancer, or a one-off deeply regrettable vote for the British National Party, yet it was more or less presented as such.

And now the right of parents to smack their children seems likely again to hit the news, with the suggestion that, in the forthcoming Queen's Speech, new laws will be announced to protect children from "abuse". Reportedly, Labour MPs are planing to add an amendment to the Child Protection Bill which would outlaw parental smacking. So far, all such efforts by our legislators have been quashed, with opponents screaming civil rights violation. We will see what happens this time.

Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, I too am a reformed smacker. I stopped four years ago, on the day that I stood over my four-year-old son preparing to smack his bottom for some epic (and yet forgotten) act of naughtiness, and realised that he was cowering from me, his expression a mask of pure terror.

Before that, I had smacked him on six or seven occasions, and his older sister once or twice. I do not feel that my authority as a parent has diminished because I have stopped smacking, but, more importantly, nor do I feel that it was a decision the Government was entitled to make on my behalf. A smack is not de facto abuse. And if on the whole we can't trust people to discipline their children responsibly, according to how they see fit in whatever their circumstances, then the answer is not anti-smacking legislation, it's to sterilise all those considered likely to become unfit parents.

Pending that, there has to some level of trust between state and society, even though there will be frequent betrayals on both sides, heaven (and Dr Williams) knows.