There is an irony in the calls for MPs to be allowed a free vote in Parliament on the proposed total ban on smacking. MPs, it is claimed, should be allowed to vote according to their consciences. Is that not what we have to allow parents – the freedom to decide what is best for their children and for their families, according to their consciences?
Smacking is not corporal punishment, or violence, or assault. It lies somewhere between insisting on changing the nappy of a resentful infant and the shrugging of one's shoulders when adult offspring embark upon some youthful folly.
When plain words, the tone of one's voice, a change of expression, the adjustment of one's posture or the wagging of a finger have all failed then we sometimes have to decide whether to walk away and leave time to demonstrate the truth with which we have been concerned, or to apply physical restraint to avoid an immediate harm.
With the latter there comes the possibility of resistance and, possibly the need to act swiftly. Used appropriately, a smack can prevent immediate harm or injury and can reinforce important lessons that some children will ignore if they can.
Used correctly, it causes no more than fleeting pain, discomfort or simply embarrassment and is done out of a concern for the child's best interests, rather than in frustration or anger.
We should also consider the effect on the child if they continue to strike matches, or to land blows on a victim. Do we want them to endanger themselves or others as soon as our backs are turned?
Smacking usually occurs within a home and within a family. These are private areas where public control and evidence gathering are difficult and where all sorts of other, far more subtle forms of neglect and abuse are possible. Events in recent months in Dewsbury provide reminders of that sad truth.
Moves to outlaw smacking are ill-considered and will further confuse and discourage parents, whose role becomes ever-more demanding. Politicians and others who seek to interfere in this way are never expected to pick up the pieces when things go wrong and the very rights that are claimed for a child are denied that child if their parents do not teach respect for others' rights sooner rather than later.
A claim by The NSPCC suggests that some 160,000 teenagers over the age of 15 have recently been beaten by parents trying to assert discipline. Yes, this suggests a woeful lack of judgement, discipline too late and in haste. But we have to allow parents freedom to make bad judgements as well as good ones, unless we want to take over their children altogether.
Unless a particular judgement has immediate and harmful effects then one interferes at the family's peril, for if our judgement is unsound then the effects for the children, those for whom we are most concerned, can be dreadful beyond our imagining.
If we are to remain free to bring children into the world, and then effectively to bring them up, the most important job in the world, we must be trusted until there are good grounds for withdrawing that trust. Otherwise, we will have to license parents or abolish the family.
The writer, a former head teacher, is the author of Dunno, The Story of a Disaffected Teenage Boy
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