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26 April 2022

Smacking a child is not like punching a minister

The debate highlights how Western society’s perspective on children has changed.

By Louise Perry

Robert Halfon, the Conservative MP for Harlow, spoke in support last week of the children’s commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza, who has called for a ban on parents smacking their children. “If I walked to the front bench and smacked the Leader of the House,” Halfon pointed out from the House of Commons back bench, “I’d possibly be done for assault.”

Quite right too. But I wonder how the Leader of the House would feel if he were to find himself suffering the same indignity that my one-year-old son endures many times a day: to be picked up, sometimes kicking and screaming, strapped into a contraption branded The Wriggler™ (really a baby-sized straightjacket), stripped naked below the waist, and mollified with a packet of wet wipes or some other amusing object while his nappy is changed.

If I were to attempt such a procedure on a non-consenting adult, I’d possibly be done for assault, and I would deserve to be. But the relationship between a parent and child is very different from the relationship between two adults. Not only are we legally permitted to physically control and psychologically coerce our children, we are actually obliged to as part of our parental duties to them. The hotly contested question is this: should that process of control and coercion legitimately include smacking?

I have never smacked a child – either my own, or any of the children I looked after when I worked as a nanny. And I don’t intend to, either, because I share with the rest of my generation a distaste for any kind of corporal punishment.

Under current legislation in England, parents can face criminal charges only if they leave a mark on their child (arguably a racist standard, since such marks are harder to detect on darker skinned children), and smacking is therefore usually legal. The Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi – who opposes a smacking ban – confessed to Times Radio that while he has never smacked his nine-year-old daughter, his wife “on occasion has felt a need for a light smack on the arm, if she’s being completely naughty and misbehaving”.

But the Zahawis are increasingly out of step with the sensibilities of other British parents. While YouGov finds that 72 per cent of Britons over 65 agree with the legal status quo, only 32 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds do so. Over the past century, smacking has become both much less prevalent and much less socially acceptable. If this trend in public opinion continues, it seems likely that we will soon see a ban introduced, just as De Souza proposes.

This change in attitudes towards smacking is in keeping with a broader change in attitudes towards childhood in the modern West. Most historians date the beginning of this shift to the late 19th century, when falls in both child mortality and child labour participation drove a reconceptualisation of the status of the child. We now understand our children to be, in the words of the sociologist Viviana Zelizer, “economically worthless, emotionally priceless” and therefore deserving of the utmost care and attention – including, increasingly, protection from even the mildest forms of corporal punishment.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: A History of Violence and Humanity (2011), Steven Pinker situates this within a grand progressive narrative: “the prohibition of spanking represents a stunning change from millennia in which parents were considered to own their children, and the way they treated them was considered no one else’s business… [this forms] part of the historical current toward a recognition of the autonomy of individuals.”

It is this issue of child autonomy that sets us apart, not only from most of our forebears, but also from people in other parts of the world. To put it bluntly, modern Westerners have some ideas about children that are elsewhere regarded as very strange. Not only do we smack our children less often than in other places, we also do other things that stand out as unusual in the anthropological record.

One odd thing that we do is make our babies sleep alone. The norm in most cultures is for both newborns and older babies to sleep very close to their mothers, usually in the same bed, and co-sleeping often extends well beyond infancy. In Japan, for instance, it’s not uncommon for children to sleep next to their parents or other family members until the age of ten (incidentally, this is a country with one of the lowest rates of sudden infant death syndrome in the world).

In keeping with this drive towards early independence, we also put our young children in daycare centres – a very novel historical phenomenon spurred by the recent mass entry of middle class women into the labour market: in 1981, only 24 per cent of women returned to work within a year of childbirth; by 2001, it was 67 per cent. While it’s common in most societies for children to be looked after by other (usually female) relatives, it’s not common for children to be entrusted to the care of strangers in exchange for payment.

Another way of framing all of these various peculiarities of the modern Western childhood is that we are unusually keen to view our children as mini adults, blessed not only with the rights enjoyed by autonomous individuals (including not to be smacked), but also with the expectation of independence. Hence why Robert Halfon can blithely compare the smacking of one’s child with the smacking of the Leader of the House. For good and ill, such a statement would be almost incomprehensible in any era but our own.

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