Slap down... outlawing of corporal punishment in the home
A proposal to abolish a parent's defence for slapping a child brings Ireland into line with much of Europe. Is it long overdue, or just another example of an interfering nanny state?
Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30
It is a proposal, its advocates say, which should have been passed into legislation more than 30 years ago. James Reilly, the Children's Minister, plans to abolish a parental defence justifying the slapping of children - a move which would bring Ireland into line with the majority of EU member states.
Some 33 years after corporal punishment was outlawed in Irish schools, Reilly's proposal would effectively ban parents from slapping their own children. And it can't come soon enough, according to Dr Elizabeth Nixon of Trinity College Dublin's Psychology School.
"Ireland has a poor record when it comes to the way it treats its children and such a move has been long overdue," she says. "It would send out a positive message and certainly make parents think twice before they smack their child."
At present, parents and carers can plead a case of "reasonable chastisement" if they find themselves in court. But this clause has been found to be in breach of an EU charter.
In May, the Council of Europe noted that "violence against children, including corporal punishment, is a major abuse of their human rights, and equal protection under the law must be guaranteed to them."
While century-old legislation which allowed parents to use force against their children was repealed in 2000, the "reasonable chastisement" defence was allowed to stand. Children's charities Barnardos and the ISPCC have campaigned vigorously for it to be removed.
"We're very happy about this change because, for too many years, there has been a grey area in terms of the protection of children under the law," says ISPCC CEO Grainia Long.
"We should be really clear about what is right and what is wrong when we talk about children and their protection and it shouldn't be for the courts to decide what is 'reasonable' behaviour."
Long says the ISPCC was horrified in July when a woman who beat her little boy with a tree branch and then rubbed salt in his wounds was given a suspended sentence on the grounds of "reasonable chastisement".
Several studies show that slapping is still commonly used as a means of discipline in this country. Some 42pc of parents confessed to smacking their child at least once in a study published by Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and authored by Dr Elizabeth Nixon.
Of those who admitted slapping, 56pc said they believed it was effective at the time, yet 58pc thought it wouldn't prevent future misbehaviour.
"If over half of parents don't think it's effective as a discipline strategy," Dr Nixon says, "it begs the question why are they still doing it?"
Anecdotally, slapping of children does not seem to be as prevalent as it was for previous generations - and a lower proportion of younger parents admit to using it as discipline, compared to their own parents. Yet, many are unlikely to have been shocked when students at IT Sligo recently published a study in which they witnessed 52 incidents of parents slapping children in a one-hour spell at three separate shopping centres in the town.
What's not in doubt is how much of a taboo slapping has become. It's a rare parent today who will go on the record to admit to using it to discipline their child.
An author of a popular parenting blog says she has resorted to slapping her children in the past, but says she feels too ashamed to talk about it openly.
"I slapped them on the bottom with my bare hand on five or six occasions and felt absolutely terrible afterwards when they started roaring crying. The first time was when the oldest was three or four and he bit another child. I did it without thinking and while it shocked him into not doing it again, there and then, he did bite his sibling a few weeks later," says the blogger.
"I don't think any parent premeditates slapping - it's something that's done instinctively in the heat of the moment, and probably comes more naturally to those who were slapped themselves as children. I certainly was - and with a wooden spoon, which I would never dream of using on my children. I still feel guilty and when I admitted to my best friend I'd smacked my children, she said she also felt the worst guilt after hitting her own kids, too. She told me she had showered them with treats in the days afterwards because she felt so bad about it."
Such behaviour, says clinical psychotherapist Joanna Fortune, only magnifies the initial error.
"Not only is slapping not an effective punishment, but parents who try to over-compensate afterwards by spoiling them are sending out mixed messages. On the one hand, they're saying it's okay to resolve problems with violence and then they're giving a completely different impression with their sorrowful words and treats. It's no wonder children can be utterly confused by such behaviour."
Fortune, who specialises in child-parent relationships, says punishments such as smacking and 'the naughty step' are especially ineffective for children under four years of age.
"They haven't developed their cognitive abilities enough by that stage to understand why they're being slapped or put on the naughty step. They don't make the link between behaviour and action."
It is far more effective, she argues, to show them how their behaviour can have consequences.
"Imagine they've been throwing a toy around the room and they won't stop no matter how many times you ask them to," she says. "Then the toy breaks. The best thing to do would be to let them see the toy going in the bin and to tell them that it won't be replaced. And make sure it isn't replaced - otherwise, more mixed messages are being sent out."
Meanwhile, Fortune has a message for those parents who believe it is their right to be able to discipline their child as they see fit. "Ask yourself how you would feel if a stranger hit your child. You'd be outraged. And yet, some see nothing wrong with doing the same to their own children."
Whatever about the emotive issues surrounding the debate, Elizabeth Nixon's research - and that of an Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times poll from earlier this year - demonstrates that there appears to be a large cohort of people who continue to see slapping as a valid form of punishment.
Others are uneasy about what they see as the State stepping into the private world of parenting, with Renua leader and mother-of-one Lucinda Creighton concerned that parents might find them criminalised for behaviour that was considered perfectly normal even in the recent past.
"Mums and dads in today's world operate under serious time and fiscal pressures," the politician said in May.
"Even parents who smack their children know at a deep level that striking a child, no matter how gently, represents a failure of parenting. The notion that a parent who lightly smacks a child might be criminalised is a step too far.
"Are we now to replace the old ways with a nanny state which will be squinting into the windows of law-abiding parents looking for the slightest slip up to occur so they can reach an arrest quota?"
The ISPCC's Grainia Long believes Minister Reilly's proposals should have gone further "and banned slapping outright", but she says new legislation is likely to lead to a sea-change in how parents treat their children.
"It will become even more unacceptable than it is now to mistreat children - and I'm not just talking about smacking, but punishments like locking children in a room or denying them food.
"It will mean that if a case goes to court, parents will not be able to draw upon the defence of old," she says.
"I think it will ensure that we are all more aware of the fact that our children are rights-holders, too, something the Children's Referendum has already helped with."
The parenting blogger who admits to having slapped her children in the past believes it will be a step in the right direction.
"I've promised myself that I won't resort to slapping again in any circumstance, and legislation like this is bound to make parents think twice, especially those used to smacking their children in public.
"When I was a girl, it was perfectly acceptable for people to drive without seat-belts. Now, that would be unthinkable because society's attitude has changed so much. So while it's common to see a stranger slap their child in public, I'm confident that there will come a day where it will be so rare, it would be the most shocking thing to see."
Mapping corporal punishment
Of the 27 EU member states, 16 have enacted laws to prohibit corporal punishment in all settings, including in the home. Ireland is not one of them and consequently violates a European charter.
The European Committee of Social Rights made its ruling after a formal complaint from UK-based charity Approach - the Association for the Protection of All Children - despite the fact that British parents can still, legally, hit their children.
Sweden was the first country in the world to ban the slapping of children in 1979 and was quickly joined by neighbour Finland. Countries as diverse as Denmark, Latvia and Cyprus all made slapping illegal in the 1990s, but the sea-change has really taken hold since 2000, when Germany, Spain and Portugal all enacted similar legislation.
Besides Ireland and the UK, corporal punishment by parents remains legal in France and Italy, despite moves in both countries to effectively ban it.
At present, some 46 countries globally (including the 16 EU states) prohibit slapping, including South Korea and New Zealand, with both Bolivia and South Sudan introducing legislation in the past couple of years.
South America is the continent where most countries have outlawed slapping, but several of the world's wealthiest nations - including the US, Canada and Australia - still allow parents the right to smack their children.