Thursday 10 March 2016

Should we smack our children?

So should you smack your children? It’s rare to get a reply to this question that isn’t passionate and it’s rarer still to find people who are happy to just sit on the fence.

It does seem to be an issue that polarises views. On the one hand you have those parents who see no harm in it, providing that it is just an occasional smack. They tend to justify their approach to discipline by explaining how they were smacked as children and yet here they are, perfectly normal and well-adjusted parents. If you still seem a bit sceptical they’ll then go on to explain how the woes of the world, and juvenile delinquency in particular, are caused by a lack of discipline and that if more children were smacked a bit more often the world would be a better place for it.

On the other side of the fence are the people who stand aghast at hearing this defence of assault and battery. They wouldn’t dream of hitting their children and are quick to point out that it can lead to terrible emotional consequences for the children involved and that it really ought to be made illegal.

To be honest I can see some value in both arguments. As a child of the 60’s I, and pretty much everyone I knew, were occasionally smacked. If it had an awful effect, then we must have all suffered it together. Yet the vast majority of us manage to muddle through life without feeling the need to dish out wanton violence. That said, whilst I struggle to see how an occasional smack does any genuine, measurable, harm to a child I also can’t see how it does any good either.

When I was a kid most schools used the cane and most parents smacked their children. Were we all little angels as a result? Of course we weren’t. We still broke the rules, we just accepted that there would be a physical consequence if we got caught. I can’t recall a single instance when we decided not to do something because we might get the cane, or a belt, if we were caught. In fact, being punished was often a badge of honour, showing everyone else in the school just how hard you were.

Then, as now, children broke rules because they either couldn’t see any value in the rule, or because they thought they wouldn’t get caught, or because it sounded like a lot of fun, or for every one of the above. The whole reason children need parents is because they are very poor at working out the consequences of their actions and I don’t believe that smacking them has ever improved this juvenile blind spot.

The only time I’ve slapped Marty was when he was about 2. We were walking along when he let go of my hand and made to run across the road just as a car hoved into view. Before I even knew what I was doing I’d screamed in terror, hauled him back onto the pavement and slapped his backside.

I remember this event clearly, not because I thought Marty was going to be killed, he wasn’t, but because I’d slapped him without even thinking. It wasn’t hard and I don’t think Marty even reacted to it but it worried me. I’d been brought up believing that it was wrong to hit anyone smaller and weaker than myself, and that if I did I was nothing more than a bully. Yet here I was slapping the smallest person I knew! Yes, I could justify it, but it still didn’t seem right and my excuses sounded hollow, even to myself.

So I had a long think about it and I realised that whenever I got really annoyed with Marty it had less to do with what he’d done and had far more to do with the kind of mood I was in. True, his behaviour was a tipping point but it was still mainly down to me; I was fed-up, or tired, or just plain-old-fashioned pissed-off, whilst Marty was just behaving the way most children do, a way that I might have found cute and amusing if I’d been in a better mood.

Which led to the question, “If I smacked Marty would I be handing out calm, considered, and well deserved punishment or would I be venting my own frustration on a small kid?” To be honest I suspected the former might be the case more often than not.

I started watching other parents. I never saw a parent calmly smacking a child, it was always done as an act of rage or at least one of severe annoyance. On the odd occasion that this wasn’t the case it was wrapped up in some perverse logic that made little or no sense – the classic was the mother smacking the 5-year old for hitting the 3-year old, with the scream “Don’t hit people smaller than yourself!” or “How many times have I told you… smack. You don’t… smack… Hit people.” If children are supposed to be learning from these punishments I have yet to figure out what the lesson is, other than that ‘Parents are funny creatures that make as much sense as UK Foreign Policy’.

The other thing I noticed was that parents that smacked their children tended to reward them afterwards, no doubt because they felt a bit guilty about smacking them in the first place. Once again, what the hell is the lesson that’s being taught here? And if you felt you were handing out well-deserved and appropriate punishment, why the guilt?

Another argument I’ve heard for smacking young children is that “They’re too young to listen to reason.” According to this thought process you only resort to physical violence when logic has failed. I have a few problems with this. Firstly, it doesn’t say much for your powers of persuasion if you can’t even coax a 2-year old around to your way of thinking. Secondly, it’s not the greatest lesson to impart; if you can’t argue your point, just lash out with your fists instead. Thirdly, if an unwillingness to listen to reason was your excuse for smacking your 5-year old, what on earth are you going to do when they are 17? They’re no more likely to be listening to reason at that age but are far more likely to hit you right back.

So do you stop hitting them when they’re older? Sorry, but this would just mean you are a coward, only hitting the small child because they can’t hit you back. Or do you carry on hitting them and just accept the inevitable consequence; they will hit you back sooner or later and you will have no moral defence when they do so?

I am very glad to say that, aside from that one incident, I’ve never felt the need to smack Marty, partly for all the reasons I’ve just gone through but mainly because I don’t think he’s ever done anything to warrant it.

So how come we’ve got a little angel? Well, firstly we haven't but, on the whole, he is just a nice, easy going, kid. That said, I think a lot of this is also down to the fact that we live a steady, consistent and disciplined life.

A classic example of what I mean is the kid in the supermarket badgering his or her parents for sweets. This is a common sight because supermarkets go out of their way to display sweets at child height throughout the store, especially at the check-outs, and they do this precisely because they know children will start badgering their parents.

The parent says no, but the child won’t drop it and eventually the parent cracks. At this point two things might happen, either the parent just throws a wobbly and starts screaming random threats and, occasionally, smacking their child, or they give in and buy them sweets. Often they scream the random threats, smack them, and then give in and buy them sweets. Either way, the kid already knows that if they keep up the pressure they will eventually get what they want, even if they do end up with a slightly warm backside as well.

We don’t really get this problem with Marty for no other reason that we never have the ‘at this point two things might happen’ stage. We never, ever, give in to him. Personally I find this approach to discipline really easy because I’m particulary obstinate, but this approach really does work.

Once we say no Marty knows that’s the end of the discussion and no matter how much he pushes things nothing will change. To start off with this approach can be very tiresome but it’s amazing how quickly children come around once they recognise that discipline is consistent and fair.

Of course this doesn’t stop him trying entirely but he tries less and less often and more and more half-heartedly. These days we can usually end a tantrum simply by counting slowly to 5 because he knows that when we reach 5 punishments will be handed out, either he gets no dessert, or no bath, or no stories etc. None of the punishments are draconian but they are all things he really values and the degree of punishment rises the more he pushes things – he starts off getting no dessert, then we go to bed early with no bath, then no stories etc. The result is that we very rarely get to count past 3; by applying consistent discipline we rarely have to punish him at all.

This isn't to say that I don't occasionally crack. Like all 5-years old's Marty is brilliant at knowing how to wind his parents up and my wife keeps telling me off for 'growling' at him when I'm particularly livid but that's as far as it ever needs to go.

This is the critical point that most of the people who advocate corporal punishment seem to miss. They struggle to see the difference between discipline and punishment, which is a real shame, because, as a general rule, the reason why they need to inflict punishment all the time is because they don’t apply consistent discipline.

If you give a child a short set of simple and clear rules and implement them fairly and consistently it is very unlikely that you will ever need to smack them.

So we don’t smack, because it’s pointless, doesn’t work, is asking for trouble in the longer term and is masking the fact that we’ve failed to apply discipline in the first place. However, there is one other reason that really swung it for me. In the UK it is actually illegal to hit anybody, with one solitary exception. Yes, the only people you are legally allowed to hit are those members of our society who are most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves; our own kids! When you look at it like that it’s shocking, no?

This is why many people are calling for the smacking of children to also be made illegal; it doesn’t work as a method of discipline and its inconsistent with the law of the land. Personally I’m not sure if making it illegal is such a good idea. We choose not to smack our son because we think it’s wrong. That doesn’t mean it is wrong, it just means that no one has ever been able to give me a good, solid reason for thinking its right. So I am loathe to inflict my opinions on others, other than in a blog that people are free to stop reading at any point and can just ignore anyway.

The other reason I’d back off from making it illegal is that, even if the parents smacking their children are wrong, it’s not because they are bad parents, or bad people or because they are being deliberately cruel. They are usually smacking their children out of misguided and ill-considered love; their hearts are largely in the right place, it’s just their brains that are lagging a fair way behind.

If we locked people up just because they failed to think through the consequences of their actions Westminster would be a very quiet place and PMQ’s would look like an episode of Porridge.

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