France’s recent run in with the Council of Europe, on their smacking policy has put corporal punishment back in the lime light, but a zero tolerance policy on hitting our children must be recognised not only as a natural evolution of our laws against assault, but as a much-needed gatekeeper to stem violent crimes against children world-wide.

The anti-smacking movement is an unpopular one. Governments around the world continue to shuffle their feet in fear of upsetting lazy parents who use language like ‘tap’ and ‘pat’ when they hit their children, and tell anyone who’ll listen that violence is a necessary part of everyday parenting. Previously, peers in the House of Lords debated this issue, framing it as a parental rights versus children’s rights dilemma. 

Both the French and the British government have a lot to answer for. In a TV debate this week, Thierry Vidor, of the family association Familles de France, told viewers that smacking was an “act of love”. Closer to home, Lord Lester suggested that parents should not be “criminalised for administering a light smack because it’s technically a battery.” That’s like saying a rapist should be let off because his victim was “a little precious” about her vagina.

Not everyone is making excuses for the smacking brigade. A study carried out by researchers from the University of Manitoba and McMaster University in Canada found that harsh physical punishment could lead to mental illness later on in life. Given that most children who are hit are unable to distinguish the many complex reasons why they’re being physically attacked,  and are, most of the time, unable to stop attacks against them, that some should suffer from such disorders is a logical deduction. And whilst some studies claim that smacking does not affect children if they feel loved, such findings tacitly ignore the reality that a relationship which involves violence is, regardless of affection shown after the attack, an unhealthy space for a child to grow up in.

Whilst France refuses to implement an outright ban on smacking, fearful of the statistical majority of parents in the country who oppose a ban outright,  our own laws are still too weak. Currently, the 2004 Children’s Act allows the physical punishment of children, as long as the act leaves no “bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches”. This, of course, does not address the deeper issue of emotional harm, which can lead to long term mental health problems. Nor does it take into account the example physical violence in the home sets.  And yet, all forms of physical punishment, including smacking, are prohibited in full-time independent schools, in children’s homes, in local authority foster homes and Early Years provision. So why are parents still allowed to physically punish their children?

We already know smacking is a gateway to further abuse. A light tap today, a rollicking thump tomorrow, once the tap no longer wields its intimidating sting. We know too, that it is an ineffective form of parenting, and says more about the parent’s presence of mind than it does the child’s. Despite all of the evidence showing us that smacking is a high-risk activity, parents still feel justified in using this form of corporal punishment. In a 2006 survey, 80% of the UK population said they believed in smacking and 73% said that they believed that any ban would cause a deterioration in children‟s
behaviour.  And they are not alone.

David Lammy MP, or as we like to call him, David Smack Me MP, was busy telling anyone who would listen that smacking children was “necessary and right”, and rather oddly, that the lack of corporal punishment amongst working class families led in part to the Summer Riots.  We expect that kind of stupidity from a politician, but when our justice minister Chris Grayling proudly tells the nation that he smacked his children growing up, and that it “sent out a message”, it’s no longer a laughing matter. It goes to the heart of our culture, and how we value children in society.

A ban on smacking does not have to lead to automatic prison time. As a society trying to make its way to civilisation, there should be a vast array of solutions at hand to deal with slap-happy parents, and prison should be a last resort. There is a distinction to be made between those parents who occasionally lose control and those who live to exert it. In most cases, the law would serve as a reminder that smacking is culturally unacceptable. For a small few, that prison is inevitable.

Making smacking illegal sends out a message. It ensures that children are accorded the same respect as adults in the eyes of the law. Crossbench peer Baroness Finlay of Llandaff points out that at least 50% of all children, those under 18, are hit once a week. When we have laws in place which make touching another adult in a way we’re not comfortable with a crime, how is it that our law still refuses to recognise that children are vulnerable members of our society, whose physical security we should be prioritising, not procrastinating over? Why should it be okay for a parent to a hit a child, when it is not okay for an adult to hit another adult? Does parental love really cover a multitude of sins, or is it just a convenient byline for our politicians too afraid to alienate its voters?

A ban on smacking is essential, not only for our children’s safe and healthy development, but for our development as a species. A ban on smacking would re-educate society. It is the right and necessary thing to do.

We’ve written about smacking before – check out our other posts and our petitions, here.