Smacking: An ‘acceptable’ form of child abuse

The UK government has sunk to a new low by defending the rights of parents who smack their children, writes author.

Newly assigned Justice Secretary Chris Grayling arrives at Downing Street in London
Newly assigned Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has endorsed limited corporal punishment on children [Reuters]

The Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, has betrayed millions of vulnerable and innocent children in the United Kingdom by declaring that smacking young children “sends a message”.

In a newspaper interview, the conservative Minister talks of the “regime” he and his wife used on their children when they were younger, proclaiming when they misbehaved they “knew they could get a smack from dad”. Could it be any more ironic then that Grayling in his role as “Justice Minister” took it upon himself to “educate” Britain’s parents on how to raise their children, advising:

You chastise children when they are bad, as my parents did me. I’m not opposed to smacking. It is to be used occasionally. Sometimes it sends a message – but I don’t hanker for the days when children were severely beaten at school.

Well, at least after that last sentence, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the Tories are (publicly at least) refraining themselves from transforming Britain’s classrooms back into dens of corporal punishment. In March 2010, the final loophole was closed on corporal punishment, prohibiting it in all maintained and full-time independent schools, local authority foster and children’s homes and Early Years provision in the UK.

It is also worth of course considering that the views of Chris Grayling are those of a right wing disciplinarian, who was secretly recorded saying that Bed and Breakfast owners in the UK should “have the right” to turn away gay guests.

The law on smacking children

Smacking children is a form of child abuse. Phrases such as: “It didn’t do me any harm” or “A child needs to respect their elders” are pitiful justifications from parents resorting to physical abuse and violence in bringing up their offspring.

UK law protects those who chastise children, as parents in the UK are not explicitly prohibited from smacking their children.

In 2007, findings were published from the desperately needed review of Section 58 of the Children Act 2004. The outcome restricted parents and those acting in loco parentis, who cause physical injury to their children, using the “reasonable punishment” defence where they are charged with actual or grievous bodily harm.

As a result of the amendment of Section 58, the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales reviewed a sample of cases where a child was assaulted by a parent or adult acting in loco parentis, and published a charging standard.

If it not permissible to beat an adult, why should it be permissible to do so to a child?

The Charging Standard states that for minor assaults committed by an adult upon a child that result in injuries such as grazes, scratches, abrasions, minor bruising, swelling, superficial cuts or a black eye, the appropriate charge will normally be ABH for which the defence of “reasonable chastisement/punishment” can no longer be used.

However, if the injury amounts to no more than reddening of the skin, and the injury is “transient and trifling”, the “reasonable chastisement/punishment defence” can be used by parents charged with common assault.

So, if a parent hits a child with so much force their skin becomes discoloured and broken, they then have the defence of a farcical legal loophole, also known as “reasonable chastisement” to justify assaulting their child. It is incomprehensible and an utter insult to humanity that adults have more legal protection than children if they suffer an assault from another adult.

Children in the UK are being bitterly failed by inadequate, muddled and murky legal protection for those who hit. There is also no definition of the term “reasonable punishment”, further reiterating the dire safeguarding and lack of respect towards those who desperately need it the most. If it is not permissible to beat an adult, why should it be permissible to do so to a child?

Any form of smacking, hitting, striking or inflicting violence upon a child is abuse. Not only is it child abuse, but a chilling abuse of power towards those most vulnerable and precious in society. Moreover, the fact this is carried out by parents, whose children have no choice but to wholly rely on them for love, guidance and support is even more stomach churning. Hitting a child shows total failure as a parent; “teaching them” that violence is an acceptable form of behaviour and the ultimate outcome of losing control of a situation.

Hitting children is abuse

Kelly (not her real name) was smacked by her parents as a child. Now, 23 and pregnant, she has vowed never to hit or hurt her child in the way she was.

I remember it just being normal really. If I didn’t eat all my dinner, made a mistake with something or was late, mum would always smack me, either on the legs or bottom. I would also be threatened with the slipper when dad got home and that was the worst. I remember I didn’t go into school because he hit me so hard my leg was black and blue; I’ll never forget that day. I used to flinch when they came near me, dreading being hit. We never talk about it now and my relationship with mum and dad is what you’d describe as normal I suppose, however, deep down I hate them for what they did.

The Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children states:

Corporal punishment of children breaches their fundamental human rights to respect for human dignity and physical integrity. Its legality in almost every state worldwide – in contrast to other forms of inter-personal violence – challenges the universal right to equal protection under the law.

Children who experience physical punishment (including mild forms of physical punishment) are also more likely [PDF] to experience health and mental health problems in later life such as major depression, mania, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse.

No support for smacking

Article 19 (Protection from all forms of violence) of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child says:

Children have the right to be protected from being hurt and mistreated, physically or mentally. Governments should ensure that children are properly cared for and protect them from violence, abuse and neglect by their parents or anyone else who looks after them.

The British government have obviously decided to ignore the UN’s instructions, as children in the UK still have no protection from those who hurt or mistreat them. As outlined by UK Alliance Children Are Unbeatable!, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child have raised concerns about the UK on three separate occasions, initially in 2002, then in 2005 and again in 2008.

In 2008, the report published on the UK said:

The Committee is concerned at the failure of State party to explicitly prohibit all corporal punishment in the home and emphasises its view that the existence of any defence in cases of corporal punishment of children does not comply with the principles and provisions of the Convention, since it would suggest that some forms of corporal punishment are acceptable.

Why isn’t the UK following in the footsteps of other countries around the world that are banning corporal punishment?Albania is now the latest country to be added to the list of those who have taken the steps to legally protect their children from all forms of corporal punishment.

The following 33 states have achieved full prohibition of corporal punishment through legislation in all settings, including the home: Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Republic of the Congo, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Kenya, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Moldova, Romania, South Sudan, Spain, Sweden, Togo, Tunisia, Ukraine, Uruguay and Venezuela.

The way the UK government continues to protect parents, who as you read this, are legally hitting, harming and humiliating their children is just unforgivable.

Those in power even attempted to justify the cause of the London riots on parents feeling “fearful” of disciplining their children through smacking. David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, where the riots initially started, said parents should be allowed to smack their children without “the fear” of facing jail. When asked in a webchat whether he supports a parent’s right to smack their child, Mr Lammy responded:

Parents in Tottenham say they no longer feel sovereign in their own homes and the ability to exercise their own judgement in relation to discipline and reasonable chastisement has been taken away from them. I do say that we should return to the law as it existed for 150 years before it was changed in 2004.

With those running the country justifying and encouraging chastisement, what hope is there for our precious, vulnerable future generations growing up in homes where it is perfectly “normal and acceptable” to be hit by those who are meant to unconditionally love, care and protect them?

Siobhan Courtney is a British freelance broadcast journalist and writer. She is a former BBC World News presenter and BBC News journalist who has reported and written for BBC Newsnight.