Leading Article: A dangerous licence for child-minders

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The Independent Online
THERE were two central issues in the case of the Sutton child-minder seeking, in the event successfully, to be restored to the council register after refusing to sign an undertaking not to smack children in her care. The first was whether smacking children is wrong; the second, whether a parent's right to smack can be delegated to a minder.

There is no doubt where professionals of the childcare world stand on the first issue: they are virtually unanimously opposed to any form of physical punishment of children, by anyone. They point out that even parents may not hit their children in Austria and all Scandinavia, with Germany and Canada moving towards similar bans. In this country, corporal punishment is banned in state-funded schools and all childcare institutions. But it is still allowed in private schools and parents may smack, spank or beat their children up to the (ill-defined) level of 'reasonable chastisement'.

Among the many arguments against smacking or spanking are that it is inefficient; tends to escalate in terms both of force and means used; is apt to be imitated in the playground and in later life; and is often more an expression of parental tension and frustration than of any desire to impart discipline.

One expert witness speaking on behalf of the struck-off Sutton child-minder put her finger on the essence of the counter-argument when she likened such professionals to 'taxidermists telling lion-tamers how to do their job'. Those who believe in the value of an occasional judicious smack on the bottom do not share the child psychologists' view of children as helpless creatures with no means of defending themselves against cruel adults.

To this 'realist' school, children soon develop a sense of their own power over their loving parents and enjoy nothing more than testing it. They become skilled at dividing and ruling and at devising new forms of attention-seeking. Ever seeking to establish the boundaries of the permissible, they need firm lines to be laid down if they are to develop a proper sense of security. For such children, and boys especially, a firm smack on the bottom is likely to be far kinder than alternative sanctions, such as the withdrawal of affection.

To some trusting parents it may make sense to delegate the right to smack to an in-house child-minder, of whatever variety. But it is another matter to cede it to an outside minder with several other charges. For a council that has to legislate for a wide variety of human and other factors, there is surely no alternative but to ban all forms of physical assault, however low-level and well-intentioned. That was Sutton's policy. The judge's decision in favour of the child-minder seems to give a degree of licence to other minders that could all too easily be abused.