David Lammy MP recently ignited a debate about smacking, suggesting that restrictions on smacking had made parents afraid to discipline their children and that this had been a contributory factor in last summer's riots. When smacking is debated, I find there to be three important errors:
- Opponents of smacking gratuitously and offensively insist on referring to it as "hitting" (which it is absolutely not, when done in the form it ought to be) – e.g. here.
- It is claimed that research suggests there are superior child-rearing methods available that do not involve smacking. This is irrelevant, for reasons I shall explain.
- It is assumed that the only legitimate function of smacking is to train children in orderly behaviour. That is fundamentally wrong, again for reasons I shall explain.
I'll ignore the silly "hitting" point, except to remark that defenders of smacking could find gratuitously offensive terms to describe our opponents if we wanted to, and I see no reason to allow such references to go unchallenged.
Melanie Batley argues that research suggests that alternative child-rearing methods produce more orderly well-balanced offspring. Such claims are often made by those seeking to ban or restrict smacking in support of their position. But even if it is true that there are superior child-rearing methods available that do not involve smacking, that is totally irrelevant. It is irrelevant because it is not true that the only legitimate reason for smacking is to train children in orderly behaviour, as I shall explain below. And it is irrelevant because, even focusing upon training issues, it is almost never the case that the relevant comparison is between ideal smacking-involving child-rearing and ideal non-smacking-involving child-rearing. Almost no-one will receive any training in ideal child-rearing. Even amongst those that do, relatively few will be competent to execute ideal child-rearing. And even amongst those that are competent, many will find that other pressures of life, such as jobs or laziness, impair their ability, in practice, to deliver what they might be theoretically capable of.
Mere mortals we, real parents must muddle through life with a mix of instinct, hazy memories of what our own parents did, bad advice from relatives and friends, misleading and ill-understood books, and virtually fraudulent magazines and blogs. We do our best (occasionally, though more often far from it) with the tools and skills and knowledge we have available. And it cannot and should not be any other way. It would be absurd and totalitarian to mandate parental training for everyone before we were permitted offspring. In practice we must cope with "rough enough".
Instinct, in all human societies, tells us that smacking delivers something. It may not be ideal (though I don't concede that). But the correct comparison, for many parents, is not between discipline delivered via smacking and discipline delivered via ideal research-driven techniques. The correct comparison is between discipline delivered via smacking and no discipline at all. Doubtless well-meaning (but practically malign) campaigners against smacking do not, have not, and will never delivered us a super-nanny utopia. All that they can achieve for us is a discipline-free Lord of the Flies hell.
But even if they could deliver us a super-nanny utopia, they would still be wrong and oppressive. Because smacking is not simply about discipline. Smacking is the partner of cuddling, kissing, and rough-and-tumble. I smack my children as an expression of my special parent-child relationship of touch. I of course do it primarily for them, but not only for them but also as an expression of who I am. And I do not do it only to achieve orderly behaviour but also to bond them to me. I, their father, kiss and smack and cuddle and roll on the floor and wipe their bottoms and brush their teeth, and no-one else other than an in loco parentis has the same permission to do these things with them.
I could no more accept a law that forbade me from smacking my children than I could accept a law that forbade me from kissing them. And I couldn't care two hoots whether some research said my children would be more orderly or better balanced if I never kissed them. Would you follow the dictats of such research? No? Then why would you assume I had any more interest in research that said my children might be more orderly or better balanced if I never smacked them? You begin from the assumption that smacking is intrinsically undesirable, and then ask whether it is necessary. And because you say research says it is not necessary, you conclude that all that remains is its undesirability.
But I don't accept your premise. Smacking is not intrinsically undesirable; neither does it indicate failure. Smacking, done properly, is an authentic expression of love in touch. To ban me from smacking my children would be an assault on who I am – as if you banned a painter from painting or a pianist from playing or a mother from breast-feeding. We don't need research telling us that breast-feeding is good for babies to know that we should not ban it. And in exactly the same way, we don't need research telling us that smacking is good for children to know that we should not ban that.