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England needs to learn from Scotland and ban smacking

Scotland has become the first country in the UK to ban smacking – and should be applauded for leading the way.

The Children (Equal Protection from Assault) (Scotland) Act 2019 removes the outdated defence of “reasonable chastisement” from the physical assault of children, giving them the same legal protections everyone else already has.

Wales has also introduced the Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Bill received Royal Assent and became the Children (Abolition of Defence of Reasonable Punishment) (Wales) Act 2020 in March this year. The law will come into force on Monday 21st March 2022 and will also end the physical punishment of children in Wales, helping to protect their rights.

England needs to learn from Scotland and heed the very message that their new legislation underlines – that children’s rights should be protected and of paramount importance. To suggest smacking a child is acceptable only serves to provide abusive parents with a get out clause.

Reasonable punishment

The issue frequently reverts to the debate between the rights of the child versus the rights of the parent to decide how to punish their own child. Many other countries which take the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child seriously have already banned smacking. In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to explicitly ban corporal punishment of children and other early adopters include Norway, Finland, Austria and Denmark.

The Children’s Act 2004 prevents a child from being hit in England if it causes bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches, and is punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment. The justification of “reasonable punishment” can currently be used and suggests that if it is just that, then it is acceptable, although other factors also come into play such as the age of the child and the nature of the smack. Children should not be hit with an instrument such as a belt or a cane and if a mark is left, it is deemed ‘unacceptable’. Bizarrely, nannies and childminders can smack children in their care if the parents grant them permission.

Former justice Secretary and Conservative MP Chris Grayling has admitted that he smacked his own children when they were young and has defended the right of parents to smack.

Grayling, who has two grown-up children, told the Mail on Sunday back in 2013 that smacking young children sometimes “sends a message”.

Others who believe parents have the right to discipline their children in the way they choose to claim that if smacking is banned as it has been in Scotland, it would result in thousands of parents being imprisoned for ‘tapping’ their child to reprimand their behaviour.

Might is right?

Some pro-smackers believe it is the only way that children will learn, particularly in response to unruly behaviour. However, campaigners wanting smacking banned say it is a lazy parenting response and that anger and frustration should not be targeted at a child for fear it becomes a pattern or, indeed, abusive. It also reaffirms the notion that “might is right” – a view that many parents would discourage their children from adopting when it comes to their own behaviour in the playground. How can you tell a child that violence is wrong and that they should not hit other children whose behaviour that child may not agree with, when it is perfectly acceptable for an adult to smack them for their behaviour?

Professionals working with vulnerable children will outline the damage that abuse does to children. Not only does it hurt them physically, it damages them mentally and can lead to long-lasting trauma. A child looks to their parent for love, guidance, support and to learn right from wrong. If that parent then lashes out at a child, it can cause them to question what they have done wrong, whether they are loved and why the person who should be showering them with love is beating them.

It can lead to attention-seeking behaviour or for that child to seek love elsewhere, sometimes from bad influences or those who prey on vulnerable children. Young people can be exploited by gangs, sometimes for county line activity which can result in them being entangled in the youth or criminal justice system. Sometimes they are groomed by gangs or older people, showered with fake love and gifts then used for sex and passed around like an object. Their behaviour may become destructive. They can turn to drugs and alcohol for escapism which can worsen mental ill health of already vulnerable children.

It can also lower self-esteem resulting in children growing up feeling that they ‘deserve’ to be treated in this way and therefore gravitating towards unhealthy relationships where domestic abuse is rife, perpetuating that person’s belief that violence is the norm and they are worthy of nothing more.

Bad example

Children learn behaviour and while the old-fashioned view was that a ‘tap’ shows a child that something is wrong, how do you measure that tap? A smack from an adult to a child is an imbalance of power and the effects can vary but can be extremely damaging. Even a ‘mild’ smack to the lower end of the spinal column can cause harm.

An American study published in 2017 found that smacking a child is empirically similar to physical and emotional abuse and including spanking with abuse adds to our understanding of these mental health problems. Spanking should also be considered an Adverse Childhood Experience and addressed in efforts to prevent violence.

The NSPCC says that ‘while it can be tempting to think a smack sorts out incidents like disobedience and biting, it does nothing to teach your child how you want him or her to behave.’

Instead it:

- Gives a bad example of how to handle strong emotions

- May lead children to hit or bully others

- May encourage children to lie or hide feelings to avoid smacking

- Can make defiant behaviour worse, so discipline gets even harder

- Leads to a resentful and angry child, and damages family relationships if it continues for a long time.

All parents have behaved in ways they regret at times (shouting or smacking). If it happens, say you are sorry, make up and try again. This teaches the child a valuable lesson, the charity adds.

While we have come a long way in recognising child protection and introducing safeguarding measures, how can it be justified in any way that causing pain to a child in England is acceptable in 2020? There will undoubtedly be a lengthy drawn-out consultation in England if we are to introduce an outright ban which makes things clear for everyone. One of the main complaints during the COVID-19 pandemic is that the rules have not been clear enough and as a nation, we only truly understood the restrictions and what we could and couldn’t do during the March to June lockdown. After that, talk of bubbles, support bubbles, rules for single parents, shielding for the elderly, the rule of six complicated matters and thus resulted in people adopting their own interpretation of the rules to satisfy their own needs. It is the same with smacking – at the moment parents can read into ‘reasonable punishment’ as they so desire. For some it may be a one off, last resort measure of a small tap to prevent a child doing themselves harm. Other children may be experiencing borderline abuse as a result of their parents’ interpretation.

Children and especially vulnerable children need our protection – particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic where financial hardship, pressure, mental ill health and vulnerability is rife. If we, as a nation, are to protect children from harm and identify perpetrators of abuse, physical or otherwise, we need to follow Scotland’s lead and at least bring this debate to the fore.


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