Wednesday 13 December 2017

To slap or not to slap, there's no easy answer

A book club talk about punishing children has John Masterson being relieved of all his future babysitting duties

John Masterson

Would you like a good row? One that could strain friendships which have gone on for decades? Firstly, you need a topic or piece of behaviour which will turn good neighbours into litigious maniacs; a topic as inflammatory as the abortion and divorce referendums of old will not suffice.

People were usually able to agree to disagree on those topics. There was even the occasional person who did not have an opinion or did not seem to care. No. You need something that everyone wants to pontificate about and will defend their position while reason is thrown out the window. Bear with me.

I have been a member of a book club for many years, and over the course of the past decade, we have had very many robust discussions prompted by our reading material. When these discussions fizzle out, we turn to the reason we are really together, which is to gossip.

Recently, one of our group suggested we read The Slap, a book causing quite a stir around the world. It is set in Australia and the pivotal point is when a reasonably sensible man gives a fairly harmless slap to an insufferable brat of a child at a party. Unfortunately, it was not one of his own children and all hell breaks loose over the following fictional months.

Now, I have been careless, but intentionally so. I slipped the phrase "a fairly harmless slap" into the previous paragraph and already there are people foaming at the mouth, as for them there is no such thing. And I described the slapper as a "reasonably sensible man", when by this act alone, he has identified himself as a barbarian and brute.

I normally backtrack at this stage in the discussion and accept that one should be particularly careful about how you treat other people's children, only to discover that this is tantamount to my approving of doing anything you like to your own. Now, obviously, this is not a position I hold, but I do get the impression I am rapidly removed from any babysitting lists. That is not something I particularly regret.

Sometimes I have ventured to point out that I was lucky. I have no recollection of ever being hit by a parent and only once, fairly harmlessly (if there is such a thing), in school. I am not even sure if it is a false memory. This gives rise to the only joke that one hears on this topic, when someone usually points out that that is the problem with me. I should have been beaten more often. This is, apparently, an amusing aside.

As I read the book, and brought it up in conversation with a variety of people, it became apparent to me that the author had hit upon a social situation which people are impassioned about, guilty about, unsure about, frustrated about, etc, but it is something that is peculiarly divisive in today's world. I was regaled with stories of families who had not spoken for years because one parent had had the temerity to even criticise the behaviour of somebody else's child, let alone give them a skelp.

So, how do you punish a child? Usually, some form of the naughty step was suggested. But people were not even singing from the same hymn sheet about that. I particularly liked the person who asked what you do with the child who refuses point blank to go to the naughty step and tells you to eff off.

Needless to say, my book-club members had a mature, far-reaching discussion without anything getting out of hand. We didn't become over-heated or irrational. But that was mainly because we all suspected there was some good gossip coming and no one wanted to miss that. We do have standards -- we are not just a bunch of old slappers.

Sunday Independent

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