By Jean Lane
When my daughter was 20 months old, I took her to a parent and toddler group on a nearby estate. The parents sat at one end of the room nattering and gossiping, while a paid, trained worker took the responsibility away from them for a while and provided equipment and company for the kids to play with.
A little boy of about 4, immediately on seeing my daughter, knocked her down and cracked her on the head with a plastic toy. I was quite shocked at the suddenness of the assault and looked around the room to see what the reaction of the other parents would be. Ruth got up, dusted herself down and toddled off to play with a toy in another part of the room.
A woman came up to me and asked if my daughter had been hit and when I said yes, she dragged the boy into a corner, pulled his trousers down and smacked his bum really hard. My emotions were in turmoil at this point. I was aggrieved for Ruth who had been hit for no reason, but I was now responsible for another small child being chastised in the most unpleasant way.
None of the other parents appeared to find anything wrong with what had just happened, and there could not have been anyone in the room who did not see it. I picked Ruth up and left.
A couple of weeks later, I went back and I saw the same woman. Getting into a conversation with her she told me this story. She was the boy's granny. Her daughter-in-law had left home, leaving her son on his own with the boy. Granny decided that she needed to take a hand in the boy's life because her son was far too lenient with him and he was "going to grow up wild". The boy needed discipline and needed to learn right from wrong or there would be no help for him. I suggested that if the boy had just lost his Mum and his Dad seemed disinterested then what the boy needed was not discipline but love.
The idea seemed to be totally alien to the woman. I told her that I believed that her grandchild was hitting kids in the toddler group because she was hitting him. He was learning his behaviour from her. She thought I was mad.
I suspect that she is one of the examples of 'loving parents' that the mover of the amendment to the Children Bill, in the House of Lords, allowing parents to continue hitting their kids (but not too hard), had in mind when he explained that the idea of the amendment was to ensure that "loving parents should not be criminalised for administering a light tap to their children".
I do not believe that sending that woman to court or jail would be a good thing, she being a product of her own upbringing and the times in which she was a child. However, I do think that outlawing physical abuse of kids sends a message to people like her that hitting children is wrong and helps change the culture in which we live.
The House of Lords failed to give children the same protection from assault as that enjoyed by adults. Parents can still claim they used 'reasonable chastisement' when hitting their children as a defence in a court of law.
The Children Bill currently passing through parliament came about in the aftermath of the enquiry into the horrific punishment, neglect and eventual death suffered by Victoria Climbie. It is supported by the Children Are Unbeatable Alliance who want to see an outright ban on all physical punishment of children. They have been campaigning for such a Bill since 1998 when the European Court of Human Rights declared physical punishment unlawful. The Court was then ruling on a case in Britain of a stepfather who severely and repeatedly beat his stepson with a 3 foot pole but was found not guilty under the 144 year old 'reasonable chastisement' rule.
'Too hard' is a relative concept. In the mind of your average Lord/Baroness who sends their kids away to boarding school where they can learn to 'get a backbone' and in order that the little blighter is not too much of a drain on his/her patience, 'too hard' is probably a long way down the line of possible methods of inflicting physical pain on a child.
Children are human beings. They should have rights protecting them from violence, as do adults. It is nonsensical that the most vulnerable members of our society should have the least protection from abuse.
However, even if the total ban was passed, this would not be enough to protect children. It would be one, very important step down the road. There is also a necessity to change the way we think about kids; about who they are in relation to the adults around them, about how they learn and about the effects of our behaviour on them.
When you have a very tiny, defenceless child whom you have brought into the world - a hostile world - and for whom you have total responsibility to keep safe (because you can't rely on those bastards who run our courts to see to their safety) one thing you learn very quickly is that they want, more than anything in the world, your approval. If they have 'been naughty' withdrawing that approval hurts them so much. You don't have to go anywhere near the idea of a slap to get their attention. But this is not a common idea.
Parents do not feel confident about being able to survive the experience of parenthood. Smacking is often a nervous reaction to cover the fear that we have of not being in control, of being embarrassed when our kids do something 'wrong' in public, or when our kids speak the truth and show us up.
No law will change that on its own. We also need much better maternity and paternity leave and pay. We need parenting skills taught in schools, along with the notion of choice rather than role. We need much better facilities for both kids and parents, free and available to all. We need the kind of facilities and conditions which enable us to enjoy our kids rather than see them as a burden or a drain on our lives.
But a change in the law would be an important step along the road which sends out the message that all human beings, however small, have rights.
How does it make you feel?
The National Children's Bureau and Save the Children UK asked five, six and seven year-olds what it feels like to be smacked:
"It feels like someone banged you with a hammer" (5 year-old girl)
"It hurts and it's painful inside - it's like breaking your bones" (7 year-old girl)
"[It] hurts your feelings inside" (7 year-old girl)
"You're hurt and it makes you cry [and] drips come out of your eyes" (5 year-old girl)
"You feel you don't like your parents anymore" (7 year-old girl)
"You feel sort of as though you want to run away because they're sort of like being mean to you and it hurts a lot" (7 year-old girl)
"[It makes you] grumpy and sad and also really upset inside." (5 year-old girl)
"Sometimes may feel that inside like their tummy hurts" (5 year-old boy)
Britain and beating
- According to the the NSPCC, every week at least one child will die in the UK as the result of an adult's cruelty. In Sweden (population 9 million), where there is a ban on all physical punishment of children, four died from physical abuse between 1990 and 1996.
- The Government conducted research with 400 families. Among those families 97% of the four year olds had received some physical punishment. 75% of the one year olds had been smacked in their first year. One quarter of the seven year olds had been severely punished or been hit with an implement of some sort.
- According to polls only 15% of people in the UK are against all physical violence on children.
- On the other hand, according to the Children Are Unbeatable Alliance, 71% of people want to see children being treated equally in law.
- There is no other situation in law where the victim of a violent crime has to prove they did not deserve to be assaulted. Indeed with the Domestic Violence Bill the Government is preaching zero tolerance of violence perpetrated by spouses. Make any sense?
- The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recommended in 2002 that the UK Government: "With urgency adopt legislation throughout the State party to remove the 'reasonable chastisement' defence".
- Lord Lester of Herne Hill introduced the amendment in favour of not banning physical punishment. He said if a child runs into the road for the fifth time he or she needs some discipline, needs to be trained... The same argument could be made for 'training' an ageing parent with Alzheimers who runs into the road for the fifth time! Now that would be illegal and there would, rightly, be a public outcry against it.
- Eleven countries currently ban all physical punishment of children: Sweden, Finland, Norway, Austria, Cyprus, Denmark, Latvia, Croatia, Italy, Israel and Germany. Many of these bans reflect increasing awareness of children's rights in international law.
- Many of these countries launched huge public awareness/education campaigns at the time of the ban.
- Many of these countries (eg Sweden) had a history of cultural acceptance of corporal punishment on children. Everywhere attitudes have changed.
- A 1980 poll in Denmark showed only 26% opposition to physical punishment. A similar poll today shows 57% opposition.
- Across the board in those countries where they have a ban there have been no prosecutions for 'trivial' smacking even where reporting of abuse has increased.