• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Parents must be free to chastise and also to smack

Well done too Boris Johnson, who echoed Lammy’s plea and called for a change in the law to underline the right of parents to smack children.

Campaigns against smacking have put many parents on the defensive about exercising any form of restraint. Politicians often complain that parents do not take enough responsibility for the behaviour of their children. But at the same time parents are told that they should not smack their children.

This point is reinforced by an army of so-called experts who claim that discipline is repressive and results in dysfunctional children. The term “discipline” now implies an abuse of power. And a well-deserved smack on the wrist or backside is portrayed as a crime against humanity.

For far too long British parents have faced criticism and been threatened with intervention by social services if they physically discipline their child. The real target of these agencies is not smacking but parental authority. Punishment has become a dirty word, smacking has become stigmatised and parents who raise their voice at children are denounced for “emotional abuse”.

Campaigners who stigmatise punishment assume parental discipline constitutes a danger to a child.

If the truth be known, the objective of elements of the no smacking lobby is to restrain the exercise of parental authority. The wider agenda of an influential group of anti-smackers is to undermine the right of parents to discipline their children at all.

Many opponents of smacking believe that parents who withdraw affection as an alternative may cause even more damage to a child and that punishments designed to make children feel uncomfortable or undignified are just as emotionally dangerous as the physical kind.

Campaigners who stigmatise punishment assume parental discipline constitutes a danger to a child. They continually warn mums and dads to negotiate with their children instead of punishing them. Parents who punish their children’s misbehaviour are made to feel the moral inferiors of those who rely on negotiation.

The main outcome of their crusade is to undermine the capacity of parents to control their youngsters. It is almost impossible to exercise parental authority if you lack the option of physically restraining a disobedient child.

Many parents of children arrested during last summer’s riots have expressed a sense of powerlessness regarding the behaviour of their offspring.

One mum of a 13-year-old boy who appeared in court said: “You can’t say what your child is doing 24 hours a day, no matter how good a parent you are.”

Her statement was the cry for help of a mother who is all too conscious of the fact that she lacks the means to contain the misbehaviour of her child. Unless parents have a variety of options for disciplining their children – including the occasional smack – they will lack the resources necessary for exercising authority.

Tragically, well-intentioned government policies have undermined the right of parents to discipline children. Parents are confused about what is expected of them and often believe that they can be prosecuted if a smack merely causes “reddening of skin”.

One 40-year-old dad asked me: “Do I let him get in trouble or do I get in trouble with ChildLine?”

Is it any surprise that parents who are confused about their authority often find it difficult to gain their children’s respect and obedience?

So what do we actually know about the consequences of smacking? Opponents claim that research conclusively shows it has long-term negative effects on behaviour. There may be good arguments for opposing smacking but they are not to be found in the realm of scientific research.

Despite dozens of studies on the subject, nobody has established a causal relationship between smacking and long-term negative consequences. Indeed, there is some evidence to suggest that in certain circumstances smacking can be an effective disciplinary tool.

However, it is difficult to have a sensible discussion on smacking. Campaigners define smacking as violence against children. They assert that violence can only lead to more violence.

Such an argument is superficially plausible. However the equation of smacking with violence is a trick designed to associate it with abuse. Parents who occasionally spank their children are not being violent. Violence is physical force intended to cause injury.

Caring parents who administer a smack in response to a child’s act of wilful defiance or unacceptable behaviour are actually behaving responsibly. The erosion of parental authority is one of the greatest challenges facing our country. Experience shows that the diminishing of parental authority leads to a deterioration in relations between the generations.

In such circumstances adult authority itself becomes negotiable. The reluctance to restrain children really means ducking the job of socialising younger generations.

That is why the statements of Lammy and Johnson are so important. Until now many sensible people have feared to publicly express their views in case they are castigated as apologists for abuse. That’s a pity because surveys indicate that most parents continue to use smacking to regulate their children’s behaviour.

Politicians should listen to parents and clarify the law. Parental authority must be restored.

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