The debate on smacking has been reignited after a Court of Appeal decision this week to free a woman who was imprisoned for the “excessive chastisement” of her children. Those claiming this as a victory for parents who consider it their right to smack their children are, however, missing the point.
The woman, who admitted to actions including slapping her 15-year-old son on the face and banging two of her sons’ heads together, is still guilty of breaking the law and, while an 18-month sentence was deemed excessive by the Court in this case, it is right that she was punished.
The main takeaway from the whole confused ordeal is that the law on smacking children needs to be made clearer. The only way to do that is to ban it completely.
At first glance, the law as it stands seems relatively simple. In accordance with the Children Act 2004, a parent may smack his or her child as a disciplinary measure, as long as their actions do not cause actual bodily harm. The smack may cause a temporary reddening of the skin, for instance, but may not result in injury such as a bruise or a scratch. The mother in the aforementioned case bruised her son’s ear in one incident, therefore finding herself on the wrong side of the law.
But defining an ‘acceptable smack’ in this way inevitably results in a host of grey areas.
Is a punch, pinch or kick all right, so long as it doesn’t bruise? How about frequency - as long as no marks are left, is it acceptable for a parent to smack a child every day? Several times a day? Should there be a guide for what level of bad behaviour warrants a smack? And then there’s age - is it ever justifiable to smack a toddler? How about a teenager?
There is no doubt that some sort of law governing the corporal punishment of children is necessary in order to protect some of society’s most vulnerable: children who are at risk of abuse. We need something to prevent ‘smacking’ from ever becoming a convenient euphemism for child abuse.
But when the concept of an ‘acceptable smack’ is introduced, boundaries become blurred and it becomes increasingly difficult to help those most in need of protection. Abused children may be deterred from seeking help if they are unsure if their abuser’s actions are technically illegal, and it may be difficult to prosecute child abusers who tiptoe around the edges of the law.
It seems clear, therefore, that the only way to make the rules on smacking crystal clear - and to protect those vulnerable children - is to ban it altogether.
The argument that a smack is sometimes needed to discipline a child, unconvincing at the best of times, just cannot compensate for the danger inevitably posed by sanctioning any physical violence against children.
After all, there are many ways to chastise a child, and smacking is arguably one of the least effective. The NSPCC gives many reasons why a smack is unadvisable: it “gives a bad example of how to handle strong emotions”, “may lead your child to hit or bully others”, and “can make defiant behaviour worse, so discipline gets even harder”. Put simply, a smack is a violent response that signals a loss of control on behalf of the parent, and sends a confused message to the child: It’s ok for me to hit you, but not for you to hit anyone else.
What’s more, while parents are currently allowed to smack, other authoritative figures such as teachers and foster carers are not. This adds another level of confusion for children when it comes to learning discipline. A universal law on all forms of corporal punishment - which could only realistically be a full ban - would make it easier for children to learn what is acceptable and what is not, and for adults who are in close contact with children to know exactly where they stand.
In any case, with the law as it is, it’s surely a risky business for parents to administer a smack, even if they have only the best intentions. What if they underestimate that gentle tap on the back of the legs, and cause a bruise on their child’s thighs? The line between a legal and illegal smack may be easily crossed.
Best, then, to make the law as clear as possible for everyone involved: Do not smack at all.
Disagree? Read the alternate view: I was smacked as a child, and I agree with it