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Will smacking become the next cultural dividing line?

The Tories rebuff calls for a smacking ban while Labour equivocates. This smells like culture war.

By Zoë Grünewald

Last week the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, rejected a call from the children’s commissioner for England to follow in the footsteps of Wales and Scotland and ban smacking, telling Times Radio there was nothing wrong with a “light smack on the arm”.

When the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, was asked the same question, he too refused to condemn the practice, stating that “as a child who was smacked by their parents from time to time, I don’t think it did me any harm.”

The smacking debate has all the hallmarks of a new culture war — an issue for the Tories to dominate with provocative rhetoric harking back to a socially conservative Britain, while Labour flails for fear of never regaining its lost voters.

Firstly, the smacking debate concerns a social group with little political agency: children. Though we are far from the days of spare the rod, spoil the child, there is still dispute about children’s role in society and how much control over them their parents have until they have earned, through education and age, total autonomy.

Other culture wars have unfolded along similar lines. Take the debate about giving puberty blockers to transgender children. Many opponents of doing so claim that children do not have the mental capacity to make such decisions about their own medical care.

Secondly, the smacking debate challenges the norm for many people in older generations. A YouGov poll found in September 2021 that 83 per cent of adults were physically punished by their parents, and that in general older people were more likely to have been smacked. Arguments in favour of smacking often go that if it is bad for children now, it must have been bad for many adults before. Streeting’s narrative, that “it never did me any harm”, echoes the belief that younger generations try to claim victimhood over something that used to be acceptable.

Yet we have a more sophisticated understanding now of how formative the experience of violence at a young age can be. Research from University College London, published in January last year, demonstrated that “children who have adverse experiences such as being smacked at the age of three are more likely to suffer from poor mental health and behavioural problems through the age 14”.

Studies of trauma show that even if someone has no scars or life-altering symptoms, traumatic incidents can stay with them until well into later life. They can stay within our bodies, even if not remembered or if rationalised, a common experience for women who are sexually assaulted. The defence of smacking demonstrates the cognitive dissonance that permeates many culture war debates: that to acknowledge how problematic a behaviour is often to acknowledge one’s own guilt, pain or suffering.

The YouGov polling suggested that, even if one doesn’t feel “traumatised” by violence, those who were physically punished as children were twice as likely to do the same to their own kids. Such behaviours are seemingly learned and repeated.

This leads to the third point: the debate is contentious and, without nuance, turns one party into the perpetrator, the other into a victim. Smacking does not normally come as a beating or prolonged abuse. In fact, it mostly occurs when parents lose control. Mothers, such as Janice Turner, have written about the guilt and pain they felt after slapping their children, and that a lapse in patience could leave innocent parents as convicted criminals.

Similar arguments were raised in response to #MeToo, when men voiced concern about mistaken motives — polite conversation or attempts at flattery being conceived as sexual violence. As with any law, discretion would be required in its application and enforcement. There are genuine concerns about how a smacking ban may disproportionately criminalise poorer parents, who themselves may be caught in a cycle of violence or subject to vexatious complaints. Much like the debate about sexual harassment, educational campaigns are useful to ensure people understand what exactly the law means for them and how it is enforced.

Finally, the question of whether a parent should smack their child is a debate about individual autonomy and personal pain. Much like the freedom to express one’s gender identity or sexuality, the question of banning smacking requires people to examine the way their actions or intolerances affect the personal freedoms of others.

Culture war narratives from the right focus on the deterioration of traditional British values, often referencing “a better time” with stiff upper lips, discipline and law and order. These are all placed in opposition to “wokeism”. The comments sections on most articles discussing the smacking ban will contain reference to a time when there was corporal punishment and children had respect for their elders. As parents stopped smacking their children, the idea goes, law and order was eroded.

As long as England remains out of step with the devolved nations, the debate is far from over. Smacking is likely to join discussions about gender, sexuality and generational inequality in the sticky pit of the culture wars, leaving Labour scrambling for a policy to unite the young and old, and the cultural left and right.

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