Monday 24 October 2016

Slapping small children smacks of a big hypocrisy

Assault shouldn't be taken less seriously just because the victims are below a certain age, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 31/05/2015 | 02:30

The dilemma is how to get parents to stop thinking they have the right to hit children without going down the legal route
The dilemma is how to get parents to stop thinking they have the right to hit children without going down the legal route

Lucinda Creighton thinks that criminalising parents for smacking their children would be "totally unacceptable". She's right. It's not as totally unacceptable, though, as smacking them in the first place. The dilemma is how to get parents to stop thinking they have the right to hit children without going down the legal route.

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The Renua leader says the best way to do that is by creating "a culture where it is not considered acceptable". That would be nice. But is it realistically ever going to happen without changing the law?

The Council of Europe now says that Ireland should ban smacking completely by removing a defence of "reasonable chastisement" from the statute book, and Children's Minister James Reilly has indicated that the Government will look at the matter again. If it does decide to ban smacking, it won't be a popular decision.

An online poll last week found that almost seven in 10 people were against a ban on smacking, with only one in four in favour. This suggests that just waiting for attitudes to magically change is unlikely to have the desired effect.

This isn't about kowtowing to nanny state interference, but about equal protection under the law. Assault is already illegal, and it's sophistry to argue that assault is not assault as long as the victims are under a certain age. There shouldn't still be a section of the population it is deemed acceptable to hit. That used to be the case when it came to women too.

Now, most people accept that husbands should not beat their wives, or wives their husbands - or husbands their husbands, or wives their wives, as we should probably say now - but without changing the law, that may not have happened. Or would have happened more slowly. Too slowly.

It's actually worse to give parents permission to smack their children. Children cannot fight back. Adults can. Children have no escape. Adults do. Those who are struck by their spouses may feel psychologically helpless, and may be financially dependent upon their abuser. Even so, at every stage, they have the chance to walk out of the door. It's difficult, but they can do it, and many do.

Children are different. They're trapped in the situation in which they're born. They don't have the size or strength to fight back. Using violence simply makes them scared and confused.

The Renua leader in no way defends smacking children. She just doesn't want to punish loving parents who occasionally fall short of the ideal. It's wrong, however, to give those who misuse their power over children a chance to make excuses by saying "mums and dads in today's world operate under serious time and fiscal pressures."

Indeed they do. So why not change the law so that they can smack their friends and work colleagues when feeling stressed out as well? Why are adults deemed capable of acting with restraint towards one another when dealing with serious issues in their lives, but given a free pass when it comes to taking out their frustrations on children? When it comes to physical assault, the contradiction between the law as it applies to adults and children is even more stark.

The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 not only forbids any act which "directly or indirectly applies force to or causes an impact on the body of another", it also outlaws any action which "causes another to believe on reasonable grounds that he or she is likely immediately to be subjected to any such force or impact".

Children are constantly warned they will be smacked if they do not behave, and have very reasonable grounds for believing it will happen, because it generally has happened before. (Half of all three-year-olds have been smacked by a primary caregiver). Taking away the defence of "reasonable chastisement" from good parents will make no difference to their family life. Nor will it result in them being reclassified as criminals, because most will obey the law and discretion will still be applied against those who, for whatever reason, don't.

Of the 27 member states of the EU, 16 have enacted laws banning corporal punishment, including Germany, Denmark, Greece, Spain and Holland. In Sweden, it's been banned since 1979. Civilisation has not fallen apart. The jails are not full of otherwise exemplary parents. Only the most extreme cases ever come to court, but changing the law sends out a clear message of what is and is not acceptable.

European directives may be worth fighting when there's a fundamental principle of freedom of conscience at stake, but what principle is being defended here? The right to inflict pain on children? It's hardly up there with the fight for universal franchise.

Though whether that will change remains to be seen. A former minister for children said in 2011 that she was re-examining the law on smacking. Nothing was done. The Government also fought it when campaigners brought a similar complaint to Europe. It will be a pleasant surprise if this time is any different.

Sunday Independent

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