I occasionally used to smack my children, and I feel such absolute shame about it. It happened rarely, and always very lightly — a tap on the leg once in a blue moon. But it was still hitting, and look how I’m already trying to qualify it, to differentiate myself from the women who slap their distressed kids in the street, or from the weirdos who carry some sort of torch for corporal punishment. “Never did me any harm,” they say, not realising that it’s the wrong question, the right one being: “Did it do me any good?”
On a phone-in on the radio last week, a woman said that she’d habitually smacked her daughter, as it was the only thing that “worked”, and thatshe and said daughter, now an adult, had a “wonderful” relationship. I was itching to hear from the daughter, of whom there was no sign; I suspect she’d tell it rather differently. Maybe she’ll hit her mother when she in turn becomes weaker and more helpless. That’s what you do, right, when someone vulnerable is being annoying and you’re stronger than them? Just a tap or two. A light frightener, to help them understand.
To the amazement of absolutely no one, a review of two decades’ research into smacking, involving 69 studies following children over time, found that not only does it not work, but that it makes behaviour worse. The review, published in The Lancet last week, found that physical punishment of children — regardless of race, sex or parenting style — led to increased behavioural problems, particularly aggression and antisocial behaviour, and to zero improvement in “attention, cognitive abilities, relationships with others, reactivity to stress, social behaviour or social competence”.
The paper’s lead author, Dr Anja Heilmann of University College London, said: “Physical punishment is ineffective and harmful, and has no benefits for children and their families. This could not be clearer from the evidence we present.”
The background to all this is the movement, backed by every expert you can think of, including the NSPCC and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, to ban the physical punishment of children in England and Northern Ireland outright. Smacking is outlawed in Scotland and 62 other countries, with a ban due to take effect in Wales next year.
In England and Northern Ireland the law still says parents are allowed to hit their children if the hitting amounts to “reasonable punishment” and doesn’t leave a bruise or a graze. It means children are the only part of society it is permissible to hit — and, obviously, the ones least able to lodge a complaint about it — and that they do not have the same protection against violence as adults. It is incredible.
You tell yourself all sorts of things to convince yourself your actions are justified when you’re a parent — I noticed the other week that someone had a book out that advocated showing your children anger, on the basis that it does children no harm to learn that parents have a lot going on and their patience is finite. Both those things are absolutely true, but neither alters the fact that the adult is the adult and the child is the child, and if the adult starts behaving like a child — lashing out, having temper tantrums and sulking — then that is, at best, utterly confusing. I can understand how a parent persuades themselves that their way is the right way. We’ve all done it. You tell yourself what you want to hear and what is comforting to you. It doesn’t mean it’s true.
We all know perfectly well that hitting a child cannot be an expression of love. Teaching a child that smacking them is in fact a caring and thoughtful thing to do, that it’s “for their own good”, is appalling. Smacking is hideous when done in anger, because it’s about loss of control, and hideous done coldly, because then it’s sadistic. Children are small and vulnerable. They look to their parents for protection and love and are bewildered when that love turns to violence. There are no exceptions. Yes, a behaviour may briefly change, but only because the child is miserably frightened of being hit. That’s not a result.
One of the great pleasures of being my age is to see how much more evolved younger people have become about parenting and child-rearing in general, including in the classroom. I really applaud them. When I was young, being “naughty” meant being endlessly punished, which of course led to even more “naughtiness”, often all the way through school and often to the point where a child’s future chances were badly affected.
Teachers nowadays understand that naughtiness can stem from high spirits, high intelligence or, often, unhappiness in disguise, and that there are better tactics than doling out endless punishments and humiliations. (Speaking of humiliation, I have no idea if the naughty step is still a thing, but I hope not: it was a pretty weird concept. “Er, why is that young child crying on the stairs?” “Because he is naughty.”)
None of this means that children’s behaviour can’t be exceptionally challenging, or that parents can’t be driven to the ends of their tethers several times a day. I’d realised how horrible smacking was by the time my third child came along, and used instead to draw a hideous crone with one pointy tooth called Mrs Goggins, show her the drawing and say that if she didn’t behave, Mrs Goggins would come and babysit (“Nooooo! I hate her!”). This wasn’t a brilliant solution either, but that’s because there isn’t one. The best you can do is to try with all your might to be the adult.