England riots: Lack of smacking partly to blame? Photo credit: Nico Hogg, http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicohogg/6018692165/
The debate on smacking children has hit the headlines after Labour MP David Lammy said parents should be allowed to use physical discipline. Lammy criticised the Labour government’s 2004 decision to tighten up the laws on smacking children, and appeared to suggest this had led to the England riots: “Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour Government, saying, ‘You guys stopped us being able to smack our children’,” said Lammy, reported The Daily Mail.
The MP for Tottenham, where the summer riots began, later clarified his comments, telling The Guardian that lack of smacking hadn’t actually caused the looting but that the law was unclear and irrelevant to his constituents’ lives: “It is up to parents to determine the way they want to help their children navigate boundaries and how they define right and wrong, it is not for the state to define that for them,” he said.
Writing in The Independent, John Rentoul pointed out that smacking isn’t actually banned by law in the UK – just hitting a child hard enough to leave a mark. But is this already an interference too far?
Parents too scared to smack. “It doesn’t matter that it’s legal for parents to smack a child as long as they don’t cause ‘the reddening of the skin’… the threat of a grim-faced social worker swooping down on our home, asking questions and taking notes, has pushed smacking into the closet,” wrote Cristina Odone on a Telegraph blog. According to Odone, the issue of spanking has become a class matter: while middle-class parents can turn to their GP or hire a psychiatrist to deal with a recalcitrant child, working-class parents often don’t have that option. “What they do have are gangs and drug dealers threatening their children; yet they are made to question their own judgment when it comes to discipline, and feel powerless as a result,” wrote Odone.
London Mayor Boris Johnson has waded into the smacking debate: “I think there ought to be some confirmation that the benefit of the doubt will always be given to parents in these matters and they should be seen as the natural figures of authority in this respect,” Johnson told BBC Radio 5 Live, reported The Telegraph.
Liberals deserve a spanking? A Mail on Sunday editorial blamed “millionaire liberals” for making parents afraid to spank their children – particularly on council estates: “The responsible parent on the tough estate badly needs to exercise authority – but fears severe punishment for doing so.” According to the editorial, “This is typical of the unintended consequences of patronising liberal interventions in the lives of the less fortunate.”
Head of the NSPCC Andrew Flanagan told The Guardian that the only way to end parents’ uncertainty over current smacking laws is to ban physical punishment entirely. “Evidence shows that smacking is not an effective punishment and sets a bad example by suggesting that problems can be solved through hitting, often in the heat of the moment,” said Flanagan.
Cycle of violence. “A smack may well teach that bad behavior is unacceptable but it also teaches that violence and threats are an effective way of getting the response you want, which does far more harm in the long run,” argued Dreda Say Mitchell on The Guardian’s Comment is Free. Say Mitchell dismissed the suggestion that physical punishment is key to maintaining discipline among young people: “The most effective parenting or teaching comes from individuals who can command respect, by force of character and example, rather than a box of threats.”
Smacking causes long-term problems. Smacking young children leads to bad behavior further down the line, wrote teacher Bansi Kara at The Huffington Post: “What is the default position for a child that has been conditioned to believe that physical force solves life’s problems? That child’s actions are the direct effect of using smacking as a tool to raise your children.” Kara argued that it is patronising to suggest working-class parents in particular should be allowed to use physical punishment: “Why does a single, working mother require permission to chastise her children using her fists? Is there something about her single, working status that means we should not explore other avenues of instilling discipline in her children?”