Punishing parents

The campaign against smacking is based on the poisonous notion that children need to be saved from their parents.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

It is a sign of the times that most British commentators take the view that the amendment to the Children Bill passed by the House of Lords is a ‘fudge’ or a ‘sensible compromise’.

This so-called compromise criminalises parents who punish their children with anything more than a light tap. Parents are threatened with prosecution and a jail sentence if a smack leads to grazes or scratches. The reason why many regard this new power to police family life as a compromise is because parents are no longer trusted to punish their children. The campaign against smacking is driven by a wider agenda that seeks to undercut the right of parents to discipline their children. The assumption is that in most cases such parental punishment is likely to have a harmful effect. The principal objective of the campaign against smacking is to save children from their parents.

The media often refer to the discussion surrounding smacking as a debate, but it is difficult to pinpoint any differences of substance on this issue. There are very few robust defenders of smacking. Most proponents strike a defensive chord and fear being castigated as apologists for child abuse. The only obstacle that stands in the way of the anti-smacking crusade is the behaviour of the majority of parents. Surveys carried out on both sides of the Atlantic indicate that a significant majority of parents continue to use physical punishment to regulate their children’s behaviour. Anti-smacking campaigners recognise that their main job is to force parents on to the defensive through mounting a propaganda campaign against them.

The campaign is not simply about the appropriateness of smacking. Many advocates of a total ban on smacking are against all forms of punishing children. They believe that parents who rely on the withdrawal of affection as an alternative to smacking may cause even more damage to a child, and that punishment designed to make children feel stupid or undignified are just as ineffective and emotionally dangerous as the physical kind.

‘Withdrawal of affection is often used as an alternative to spanking, but in the opinion of many psychologists, this can be more damaging than corporal punishment’, comments a writer in Nursery World (1). Such concern about emotional punishment suggests that all power-assertive methods can be criticised for the alleged damage they inflict on kids. Since it is not realistic to campaign against the right of parents to punish as such, smacking provides the crusaders with an emotive target.

Anti-smacking campaigners are often motivated by animosity to all forms of tough parenting. Their opposition to physical punishment is linked to a wider hostility to what they perceive as authoritarian parenting styles. The implicit objective of their campaign is to restrain the exercise of parental authority.

One argument used to undermine parental authority is the claim that children should not be treated differently to adults. They argue that behaviour that is unacceptable among adults should not be used against children, decrying the fact that if a man hits another adult it is called assault, but if he smacks his child it is called discipline. They assert that the legal defence in English law of ‘reasonable chastisement’ in the physical punishment of children legitimises behaviour that would be illegal if directed against an adult. Yet this proposition has profound implications for the whole process of child rearing. What the campaigners are really saying is that we should renounce any attempt to impose parental will on children and instead negotiate with them as if they were reasoning adults.

In the real world, parents have to do many things to their children that they would not dream of doing to another adult. From the moment of birth, mothers and fathers continually impose their will on their babies. Parents who would never instruct an adult to go to bed have no problem demanding that their child should go to sleep on the dot at seven o’clock. Parents who check that their child’s bottom is clean are unlikely to do the same to people their own age.

Whenever they wash, feed or read to them in bed, parents unthinkingly treat their children as children and not as adults. We may wish to negotiate over how such things are done, but only towards a non-negotiable end, such as making sure that our child is clean. Smacking is only one of many child-rearing techniques that is not practised in relationships between adults.

Opponents of smacking claim that scientific research conclusively demonstrates that smacking has long-term negative effects on the behaviour of children. They appeal to research to justify their indictment of ‘violence against children’. In The Physical Punishment of Children: Some Input from Recent Research, Penelope Leach writes that ‘respected research tells us that the more children are hit, the more aggressive, disruptive and anti-social they are’. According to Leach, research shows that smacking can even lead to criminal behaviour in adolescence and adulthood.

To support her argument, Leach repeatedly refers to research carried out by Murray Strauss, a veteran American campaigner against corporal punishment. Yet Strauss’ work is far less clear-cut than the claims made by Leach on its behalf. Strauss concedes that the case against smacking is ‘not truly conclusive’ and raises the question of ‘whether advising parents to spank is ethical and responsible’ (2). Strauss believes it is not ethical or responsible – but on moral grounds rather than on the grounds of scientific research.

There may be good moral arguments for opposing the smacking of children, but they are not to be found in the realm of scientific research. Despite numerous studies, nobody has succeeded in establishing a causal relationship between smacking and negative outcomes for children. That is why the anti-smacking crusade is always searching for ‘research’ to corroborate its prejudice. American opponents of smacking are often disarmingly open about the need to pursue research that will prove their point and convince parents to abandon smacking. At a 1996 meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Irwin Hyman proposed a campaign of what he called ‘advocacy research’, using bits of research as propaganda to change public policy.

His colleague Leonard Eron urged the audience to have the courage of their convictions regardless of the state of current research. ‘How much evidence must we have and how incontrovertible must this evidence be before we can act?’ he pleaded. Other doctors and psychologists attending the conference managed to retain a measure of objectivity. After hearing the evidence, or lack of it, the conference refused to condemn smacking (3).

One reason why research has failed to provide the anti-punishment lobby with ammunition is because the effect of child-rearing styles is variable. It depends on the quality of the parent-child relationship, social and economic circumstances, and cultural expectations. There is even some evidence to suggest that in certain situations, smacking can be an effective disciplinary tool. In 1996, the psychologist Robert Larzelere published a major review of the existing literature on physical punishment. Focusing on the 35 most rigorous empirical studies, he concluded that there was no convincing evidence that the non-abusive smacking typically used by parents damaged children. He also concluded that no other disciplinary technique – including time-outs and withdrawal of privileges – was more effective than smacking for gaining the compliance of children under the age of 13.

Larzelere’s conclusions are confirmed by the work of psychologist Diana Baumrind of the University of California in Berkeley. Baumrind, innovator of the concept of authoritative parenting, believes that the smacking controversy wrongly polarises punishment and reasoning. She claims that authoritative parents are warm, firm and responsive, and that in this context, the occasional smack will have no long-term damaging effect (4).

Baumrind’s approach offers a useful antidote to the dogmatic certainty of the anti-smacking zealots. The main merit of her work is that she underlines the context within which disciplining takes place. Her argument is that disciplinary methods are mediated by children’s perceptions of their legitimacy. In the context of a warm and responsive relationship, children can understand the imposition of authority, even the occasional smack. Any form of punishment can have unexpected negative consequences; but such an outcome has less to do with the form of punishment than with the nature of the parent-child relationship. The outcome of an act of discipline is closely bound up with how a child experiences that relationship. That is why the mother and father are in the best position to work out what form of punishment is appropriate for their child.

Unfortunately, in the zealous climate that surrounds this issue, Baumrind’s sensible approach tends to get overlooked. The terms in which the debate is framed militate against a reasoned exchange of views. Campaigners define smacking as violence against children, and argue that violence can only lead to more violence and therefore it should be stopped.

The argument that violence breeds more violence is a powerful one. Who would stand up and extol the virtue of violence? However, the equation of smacking with violence is a verbal trick designed to associate this form of punishment with abuse. Parents who occasionally spank their children are not behaving violently. Violence is physical force intended to injure or abuse. Caring parents who administer a smack in response to a child’s act of wilful defiance with the objective of discouraging unacceptable behaviour are not behaving violently.

The inability to distinguish violence from caring discipline exercised by loving parents says more about the outlook of anti-smacking crusaders then about real-life mothers and fathers. Sir William Utting of Children Are Unbeatable!, the alliance of 350 organisations that is leading the call for a ban on smacking, cites the horrific murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbie by her great aunt and her great aunt’s partner as an example of what can happen when physical punishment spins out of control. ‘The painful truth of the maltreatment of Victoria Climbie’, says Utting, ‘is that it started with disciplinary slaps’ (5). This is an outlook that assumes parental abuse is the norm rather than the exception. Such a harsh view of parental behaviour also extends to a suspicion of other forms of punishment. But it makes better PR to confine hostility to punishment to the easy and evocative target of smacking. Smacking serves as a symbol for a campaign that believes that the exercise of parental authority is potentially damaging to children.

But make no mistake, the anti-parent crusade will not stop with the partial banning of smacking. They have already pledged to continue campaigning for a total ban. Tomorrow they might demand that parents should be criminalised for using the withdrawal of affection as a form of punishment. The crusade against smacking has already succeeded in stigmatising parental discipline and forcing mothers and fathers on to the defensive. As parents become even more confused about how to discipline their offspring, children too will become disoriented by a lack of clarity about what is expected of them.

The only beneficiaries of this powerful crusade are the professional lobbyists who are in the business of saving children from their own parents.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. His books include:

  • Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?: Confronting Twenty-First Century Philistinism (Continuum International Publishing Group, 2004)
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  • Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability in an Uncertain Age (Routledge, 2003)
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  • Paranoid Parenting: Why Ignoring the Experts May Be Best for Your Child (Chicago Review Press, 2002)
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  • Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation

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Visit Frank Furedi’s website

(1) ‘Why Smack?’, Nursery World, 29 July 1993

(2) The Physical Punishment of Children: Some Input from Recent Research , Penelope Leach, National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 1999, p19; ‘Spanking and the Making of a Violent Society’, Murray Strauss, Pediatrics, vol 98, no 4, 1996, p842

(3) ‘Spanking and the Making of a Violent Society’, Murray Strauss, Pediatrics, vol 98, no 4, 1996, p822

(4) See ‘A Review of the Outcomes of Parental Use of Nonabusive or Customary Physical Punishment’, Robert Larzelere, Pediatrics, vol 98, no 4, 1996; and ‘A Blanket Injunction Against Disciplinary Use of Spanking Is Not Warranted by the Data’, Diana Baumrind, Pediatrics, vol 98, no 4, 1996

(5) A licence to hit children that shames us all, William Utting, Observer, 20 June 2004

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Topics Politics


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