Stop conflating smacking with violent assault

The latest calls for a ban on smacking in the UK rest on some very dubious logic.

Given some of the guff anti-smacking campaigners and quangocrats have emitted recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no legal provision to stop adults from beating the bejesus out of children.

Take England’s children’s commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, who was clearly eager to show off her grasp of jurisprudence in last Saturday’s Independent. ‘In law you are forbidden from striking another adult, and from physically chastising your pets, but somehow there is a loophole around the fact that you can physically chastise your child. It’s counter-evidential’, she said. Never slow to turn up, big spoon in hand, when the stinking pot of parental suspicion is being stirred, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was quick to agree with Atkinson, stating: ‘Children should have the same rights as adults in law to be protected from physical assaults.’

Funnily enough, I agree that children should be legally entitled to the same protections from physical assault as adults. In fact, aside from the determinedly sociopathic, I reckon every member of society would like to see all forms of grievous bodily harm inflicted on children outlawed. Violence towards kids is not generally considered socially acceptable. Which is why it’s not particularly surprising to discover that beating up children is in fact already illegal. Yep, that’s right: if you punch a three-year-old in the face, you will face charges.

So why, given that assaulting toddlers is indeed prohibited under English law, are Atkinson, the NSPCC and assorted other activists talking as if it’s not? The answer lies in one of the key rhetorical strategies of the anti-smacking lobby. That is, in order to press for a ban on parents smacking children (which is legally permitted right now), the anti-smackers routinely conflate the act of smacking with an act of violence. In their eyes, there is no real distinction between delivering a smack to the bottom of a recalcitrant five-year-old and beating up an old-age pensioner – they’re seen as part of the same continuum of violent behaviour. As a result, a critic of smacking can come up with the following gobsmacking logic: ‘[When a man] punches a woman for her handbag, [he] is called a mugger; but when he becomes a father and hits his tiresome, disobedient or disrespectful child, we call him a disciplinarian.’

As incredible as it might seem to the ban-smacking crusaders, there is a distinction between a parent deciding to smack a naughty child and a bloke deciding to beat someone up because he looked at him funny. In the case of a parent, the intent is indeed to discipline the child, to show him his behaviour is unacceptable; in the case of the fisticuffing fella, the intent is to cause physical harm. That’s why smacking should not be conflated with violence: there is absolutely no intent on the part of a parent who smacks to cause injury let alone death, and it’s to the anti-smacking lobby’s eternal shame that its protagonists act as if there is. Parents, contrary to the insinuations of the NSPCC and its army of fellow travellers, tend to love their kids, not wish them harm.

Yet at heart, Atkinson and the NSPCC are not actually concerned with the act of smacking in itself. What really troubles them, and what drives them to plonk smacking on some specious spectrum of violence, is the idea of parental authority more generally. Many in the child-protection industry, and officialdom generally, simply do not believe parents are capable of bringing up children without, to misquote Philip Larkin, fucking them up. This cultural unease with the idea of trusting parents to get on with being parents explains why the terms associated with explaining the exercise of parental authority, be it ‘punishment’ or ‘discipline’, now have negative connotations. And it’s this elite suspicion of parental authority, and the increasing readiness to associate its exercise with ‘abuse’, that continues to fuel the calls for a ban on smacking.

No doubt the majority of anti-smacking activists think they’re doing children a great service. But in further curtailing a parent’s capacity to exercise authority, to communicate to their children what is right and wrong, the relationship between adult and child is being eroded. And that will do future generations no good at all.

Tim Black is deputy editor of spiked.

Make sure you read these

Punishing parents

Smacking adults

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