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22 April

Smacking your child is a disciplinary shock, not assault

Parents receive enough judgement from their peers — they don't need it from the state as well.

By Naomi Firsht

I sleep trained my son — that is, I taught him to fall asleep without me. Do take a moment to gasp and clutch your pearls. When I mentioned it in my usually supportive NCT Whatsapp group there was radio silence in response. I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled into one of the taboos of parenthood. Apparently, in most yummy mummy circles the very effective controlled-crying method of teaching your child to fall asleep on their own is now considered passé and even traumatising for the child. Supposedly everyone is now using gentler no-cry methods (you know, ones that don’t work). One year on, with a well-rested toddler and a full night’s sleep for all three of us the norm, I have no regrets.

Certainly, sleep training won’t be right for all families, but it works wonders for some, so why the judgement? But judgement is common when it comes to parenting. Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, and his wife are no doubt discovering this after Zahawi spoke out against outlawing smacking children in England, and admitted that his wife “on occasion has felt a need for a light smack on the arm” if their daughter seriously misbehaved. 

Under the Children Act it is lawful in England for a parent to smack their child if it is considered “reasonable punishment”. Scotland removed this caveat, making smacking illegal in 2020, and Wales followed suit last month. Now the Children’s Commissioner for England, Rachel de Souza, has said that she would welcome a similar ban in England, which has sparked calls from Conservative MPs for a parliamentary debate on the issue. Zahawi says he doesn’t want to “end up in a world where the state is nannying people about how they bring up their children​”.

Proponents of the smacking ban argue that it is about protecting children’s rights. Robert Halfon, Tory MP for Harlow, said: “If I walked down to the frontbench and smacked the Leader of the House I would be possibly done for assault… Yet, when we talk about the smacking of children, we say that it’s a nanny state if we question this.” 

These kinds of examples are often given in the smacking debate, suggesting that a smacking ban would merely give children the same protections from assault as adults. But we already protect children from assault and abuse under the law — and quite rightly. Smacking isn’t about assault, it’s about discipline. It’s unlikely that someone would smack the Leader of the House with the intention of improving their behaviour. Whereas, sometimes, for some children, a smack on the back of the hand, or Zahawi’s wife’s light smack on the arm, is the small disciplinary shock needed for a child to improve their behaviour, or even to stop them from doing something dangerous. It won’t work for all parents and children; parents who know they have fearful tempers, for example, should probably steer clear of any physical discipline.

The key issue is that a blanket ban won’t work because there is no one-size-fits-all parenting. As Zahawi pointed out, “we have got to trust parents on this” — although it’s no surprise many in parliament reject this notion, considering that just last year the option of forgoing parental consent for Covid-19 vaccines and allowing children as young as 12 to decide for themselves was seriously on the table.

If the smacking ban was implemented it could mean parents reported to the police for something as unremarkable as smacking their child’s hand in public. Like sleep training, how a parent disciplines their child is personal to them and their child; inviting the state into that most private of spheres in such a heavy-handed way will benefit no one. Parents receive enough judgement from their peers. A little trust and understanding from the state would go a long way. 

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