“What makes a good parent?” may be one of the most annoying questions known to man – or, more commonly, woman. The standards for good parenting manage to be both horribly vague and tremendously unforgiving, not to mention entirely inconsistent.
Good parents make time for their children; bad parents don’t give their children enough space. Good parents boost their children’s self-esteem; bad parents give their children an inflated sense of their own importance. Good parents only serve their children organic food; bad parents waste time fretting over additives and intolerances. It’s so hard to get the balance right that many of us end up concluding it’s best not to judge at all.
After all, we’re all muddling along as best we can. Who am I to say whether your parenting style is better than mine, given that neither of us has to walk a mile in the other’s shoes? Far be it from me to comment on whether you should give your daughter a Barbie doll, let her eat McDonald’s twice a week or slap her on the legs just because she’s driving you up the wall.
Except one of these things is not like the others. When it comes to physically assaulting your child, I take it upon myself to judge you. What you’re doing is wrong.
I’ve never smacked any of my three children and never will. Sorry if that sounds terribly smug. To me it’s as basic as saying “I’ve never thumped my grandma” or “I won’t ever kick my colleagues”. When it comes to assaulting children, I’ve no interest in the all-mums-in-it-together, let’s-be-friends parenting niceties. It’s abuse. For this reason, I’m delighted that the Scottish government has confirmed that smacking children is to be banned in Scotland. No more shall Scottish parents have the excuse of “justifiable assault”, a phrase so obviously oxymoronic it’s amazing anyone had the nerve to come up with it.
There are no bans currently proposed for England, Wales or Northern Ireland. Even so, the Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill and Rod Liddle have been anxiously penning defences of the right to hit someone far smaller than them. The Scottish ban, writes O’Neill, means “loving parents will suffer”. In a rare show of sympathy for members of the female sex weighed down by unpaid care work, O’Neill fears for “the stressed-out mum trying to manage four kids as she negotiates the aisles of Asda and then finds herself lashing out at one of them”.
Liddle, meanwhile, goes for all-out trolling, rhapsodising over “the immense satisfaction of hearing them howl in pain from a sharp slap to the leg, or a nasty pinch to the upper arm”. Not hitting children is, apparently, tantamount to “stifling them” and “preventing them from engaging with the world on their own terms”. As a former child who was, at least on those terms, fully permitted to “engage with the world on my own terms”, this reads to me like sadism (but then, does Liddle mean it or not? It’s hard to tell).
Conservative defences of smacking are obvious: in-your-face, not-like-in-my-day, kids-have-it-too-easy rants designed to rile straw liberals. More worrying to me, perhaps, are the measured analyses of the practice, which treat it as something bad, yes, but occasionally unavoidable. The distress caused to a child is played off against the harm done by suggesting another parent is in the wrong. Hurting children is unfortunate, but is it really as bad as passing judgment on loving, devoted mums and dads who happen to lose it once in a while?
Writing for the Scotsman, Dani Garavelli decries smacking itself, but reserves even more harsh words for the “smug and condescending tones” used about “anyone who has ever so much as raised a finger to their offspring”. The risk, as she sees it, lies in “characterising largely loving households as dysfunctional”. But wouldn’t that be a necessary step on the way to making them stop doing something which is seriously wrong?
The smacking issue isn’t about branding parents; it’s about preventing a specific form of harm. Most of us do things which are examples of bad, or at the very least lazy, parenting – letting our children eat junk food, not listening to them when they’re telling us about their day, putting on the TV rather than engage in healthy activities – but none of these make us “bad parents”. Parenting isn’t a binary, but a mix of the good, the bad and the muddling through. That doesn’t mean we can slip actual abuse into the mix. Engaging in physical assault isn’t akin to being a bit of a slummy mummy; it’s making an active choice to harm your child.
“The thing is,” writes Garavelli, “I reckon most parents who smack their children now and again are like me”:
“They are not people who endorse physical chastisement as an acceptable or effective form of discipline. They are people who have lashed out under pressure and are drowning in shame.”
While I appreciate the honesty, it’s hardly a convincing explanation. We wouldn’t accept this from someone who abuses their partner; why accept it from someone who hits their child? (I imagine most men who have smacked their wives “lashed out under pressure” and are “drowning in shame” too.)
The amount of strain a parent is under really shouldn’t matter. Garavelli guesses that parents like me “have never been stuck in the house for days on end with three or more fractious children under seven; they’ve never tried to breastfeed a screaming newborn while their toddlers tip out the contents of the fridge on the kitchen floor […] they have never been isolated or depressed or been pushed beyond their limits by manipulative teenagers; they have never been so poor, they worried they would have no food come Friday.”
From personal experience I can confirm this is utter nonsense. I’ve been in many of these situations without resorting to violence. Not only that, but there’s something especially disturbing about suggesting that poor or depressed parents will understandably be more likely to hit. Far from showing empathy for these groups, it belittles them.
The point I always find myself coming back to is, when do you stop? What’s the right age? The right size? Do you stop when your child might be big enough to hit you back, or do you push your luck a little further? Are we working on the assumption that one’s offspring naturally become less annoying over time, hence once they’re adults the impulse to slap them will no longer be there? Because that’s just not true and we know it.
I was an adult and no longer lived at home the last time I was smacked. Was it worse than being smacked at eight or 11? Not particularly. Why should there be any particular cut-off point? You’ve already decided it’s OK to regulate another person’s behaviour using fear and pain. Providing the person stays small enough forever (and I did), why ever stop?
I have adult family members who, due to conditions which are in no way their fault, can be less co-operative than my two-year-old. Dealing with them can be incredibly frustrating, but I wouldn’t dream of hitting them, let alone of accusing those who don’t assault their adult family members of not understanding the extreme pressures some of us are under.
I’m not saying that parents who have smacked their children once should all be locked up. I do, however, reserve the right to judge them and to say that whatever excuses they come up with are wholly inadequate. There’s no excuse for it whatsoever. Legal change is necessary to make it culturally unacceptable for anyone to say “yes, I didn’t want to hurt my child, but…”
As a parent you will slip up. You won’t be perfect. Nonetheless, raising a hand to your child isn’t merely one step down from giving them Turkey Twizzlers for dinner instead of organic corn-fed chicken.
Parents who don’t smack children aren’t idealists. On the contrary, they’re just like adults who don’t hit other adults, no matter how much they annoy us. Not hitting another person is easy, no matter how small they are. When I hear about parents who smack, I don’t feel smug, just angry. Still, I wouldn’t smack these people. Not even if they were half my size.