In Scotland and Wales, campaigners are calling for removal of the “reasonable chastisement defence” for parents who smack their children. This defence sets a high threshold to differentiate between light disciplinary smacks — nothing more than “transient reddening of the skin” — and abuse. Should campaigners get their way, any smack on the back of the legs or hand would be against the law.
There are many good arguments why, short of (already illegal) abuse, parental discipline is none of the government’s business. However, we should ask why this issue has arisen at all. No one was using the defence to get away with child abuse — it has not been used in Wales in at least ten years. Nor has it emerged in recognition of a problem, and much “research” claiming links between smacking and negative outcomes is, in fact, advocacy research conducted in support of predetermined conclusions.
Where campaigns to ban smacking have been successful, they have been symptomatic both of democratic deficits and undue political influence wielded by organised busybodies — who have long pursued a worldwide ban on physical discipline, regardless of how “reasonable”. Some would prefer that all punishment — even shouting — be outlawed. Andy James, campaigner for “Children are Unbeatable”, has claimed (conveniently forgetting the state): “No one has a right to hit another person, or to punish and control them.”
Campaigners claim “more than 50 countries” have banned smacking as evidence of a turning tide. But let’s look at this list. France is frequently included, but no such ban exists. New Zealand instituted a deeply unpopular ban in 2007 which was not overturned even after a 2009 referendum saw 87.4 per cent voting against it. Togo banned smacking in 2007. Why would a populace facing serious poverty and high child mortality demand a smacking ban? The answer is that they did not. The Togolese law appears connected to an IMF/World Bank poverty reduction programme involving a suite of policy guidance, including a Unicef-supported “children’s code” banning corporal punishment.
Such crises abroad often represent opportunities to institute unpopular policies whose existence becomes a goad for policy change at home. But a “worldwide awakening” to the goodness of “positive parenting” this is not.
Democracy is a small impediment to those with more faith in the reasoning powers of two-year-olds than electorates. In the EU, advocacy groups have used European law to bypass democratic processes. Coinciding with its partnership with the Global Initiative to End all Corporal Punishment of Children, the Council of Europe has reinterpreted sections of a 1960s’ charter mandating protection of children from “negligence, violence and exploitation” to include mild discipline deemed reasonable in most countries. Advocacy groups then used this to bring cases against EU member states, pressuring them to institute bans without debate.
However, bans will not be quiet nor symbolic here, where there is already a serious problem with over-intervention in family life. A 2016 study showed 22.5 per cent of English children had been referred to social services before the age of five, the majority from poor areas in closest contact with services and thus under most surveillance.
Current law effectively differentiates between abuse and mild discipline practised within loving families. Trusting democracy means trusting parents to decide how to raise their children.