Deborah Orr: Everyone deserves legal protection against being hit. Even children...

When I've slapped my children, I've done it out of bad temper and lack of impulse control
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The Independent Online

There they were, three generations, on their way home from a trip to the seaside. Gran was fat and sunburned, and so was her daughter. The children were handsome little livewires, with nothing to do on a long train journey, except be berated endlessly by their guardians.

Loudly and unceasingly, the two women scolded these under-fives. They were bad, they were naughty, they were going to be in big trouble if they didn't behave. They were wrenched, they were grabbed, they were cuffed, they were pinioned. Granddad was called on a mobile phone, and filled in loudly on the appalling misbehaviour of his daughter's children. The little girl was even put on the phone to granddad, so that he could enthusiastically join in the chorus of disapproval. Clearly there was more to come from granddad when the day out had ended.

All the while, as the women struggled to contain these toddlers, with their insults and their violence, they proffered Fox's Party Rings. Each new hit of sugar induced another round of wriggling and screaming, and another round of amazed and disappointed lecturing and manhandling. Eventually, the little boy reached out and grabbed a handful of my own son's felt pens. For his pains, he got a smack.

"He can borrow some pens and paper if he wants to!" I offered brightly,when what I really wanted to say was: "You're a total disgrace." "No thanks," said gran self-righteously. "He's not allowed felt-pens."

Boundaries. They're important aren't they? What parent should be debarred from offering a loving smack to a recalcitrant child who wants felt pens? Every parent, I say. I think the woman on the train should have exactly the same right to hit her child as she does to hit me. According to a new survey from ITV, that puts me in a minority of 20 per cent. It astounds me that this view is so controversial.

As it happens, the expert opinions on corporal punishment against children are entirely persuasive. But I'm not against hitting children because it "doesn't work" anyway. I just think that everyone should have legal protection against being hit, and that making an exception for the smallest and least powerful members of society is perverse. Further, when I look back on my own childhood, in which corporal punishment was handed out at school in the way that stickers are now, I still feel burning injustice over each occasion. It did not help me in the least.

It persuades few people, anyway, quoting the experts in this debate. Instead, in a climate which identifies "experts" - pretty much all of whom are agreed that children should be protected from all assault by law - as the very definition of people who know nothing, it's becoming rather the thing to stand up and be counted as an out and proud "loving slapper".

Tomorrow night, some of these freedom-fighters are taking part in a television documentary called I Smack And I'm Proud. I do hope we get to hear of some of their other great achievements in life.

The majority of those who admit to hitting their children though, are not exactly proud of it. The usual tale is of shocked lashings out when children run out into roads, or commit other sins that somehow adults are unable to describe the consequences of in words. On the occasions when I've slapped my children, I've done it out of bad temper and lack of impulse control. I don't have a problem with the idea that I should be as responsible for containing such impulses when directed against my children, as I am when confronted with annoying adults.

As for the idea that legislation reflecting this will "criminalise" me - bring it on - I've committed tens of thousands of crimes during my fairly blameless life already, including a number of minor assaults on adults. (Abject apology, rather than immediate dispatch to the courts, was in each case all that was required by way of absolution.)

Most law-abiding citizens, if they think about at all, break the law pretty often. If it isn't taking calculated risks when driving, then it's giving cash-in-hand to babysitters. If it isn't dropping litter, then it's smoking joints. If it isn't fibbing to the school about Bertie's day off, then it's indulging in lock-ins at the pub. The idea that laws are there to be prosecuted ferociously at all times, through the sternly judgmental agency of the criminal justice system, is fallacious. The law exists to discourage our worst impulses, not to punish as many people as possible. Hitting people - especially our children - comes under the worst impulse category, and we should be able to agree that this should be reflected in our common index of morality - the law - without presuming that we're all about to be shot at dawn if we are unable always to adhere to our own high standards. The law is a set of guidelines that we have some leeway to interpret amongst ourselves, rather than a blueprint for rigid social control.

It is often argued that the criminalisation of smacking would be an encroachment by the state into the privacy of the family. But again this presumes that the law is a state-imposed system, rather than a social contract that we ourselves take an active part in shaping and policing. The way the law stands at the moment - with the ludicrous statute threatening five years in prison for a blow that leaves a mark - is born out of an absurd wish for a kind of rigid, bureaucratic and controlling legal system that spells out every detail of a "crime" and leaves no room for flexibility or sensible interpretation.

It reflects a dislocation between the law and the population that is deeply unsettling.

Paradoxically, the deeply controlling aspect that has crept into law-making is itself a consequence of our fear and distrust, even as it spawns more of the same. It is an attitude of mind that a mature democracy should be moving away from rather than becoming enmeshed in. Parents would still smack their children, even if the law declared this to be wrong.

In Sweden, which famously banned smacking in 1979, there are plenty of reports of parents smacking children, none of which ever result in a prosecution. What's the benefit for society then, if no poor, put-upon parent is ever made an "example" of. Just that the incidence of playground bullying and violence, and violence also among the adult population, has plummetted since the directive came in.

It is a great shame that Britain finds itself unable to look sensibly at this experiment, and similarly positive ones in 11 other European countries, and to draw the obvious conclusion from them. The pity is that it isn't really because we're a nation of happy slappers - although quite a lot of our children are. It is because we appear to have lost faith in the idea that the criminal justice system can be relied on to approach such failings as the occasional inability to refrain from physical chastisementof our kids, with humanity and common sense.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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