Friday 24 January 2020

Banning smacking may be only symbolic, but symbols matter

Adults have the law to protect them, but you can still hit children. It doesn't make sense, says Eilis O'Hanlon

The wonder is that slapping your children wasn't banned in Ireland years ago. We're generally a pushover for European ways and European laws, and corporal punishment is already illegal in Germany, Austria, Denmark, Holland, Spain, Luxembourg, Sweden -- all the nice liberal, social democratic countries which we love to emulate, as opposed to those right-wing hellholes such as the United States and Britain where it's still legal.

The issue returned briefly to public consciousness last week with the publication of a study commissioned by the Children's Minister, Barry Andrews. It found that one in four parents admitted physically disciplining their offspring in the previous year -- a much lower rate than among the fist-friendly Scots, who apparently like nothing better than to knock their kids about whenever they get the chance (or maybe Glaswegians are just more honest) -- but that only 42 per cent were in favour of an outright ban.

The remainder were split between those who think it does children the power of good to feel the back of mum and dad's hand every now and again, and fencesitters who said it depended on the age of the child. Because apparently it's worse to hit children under five and over 10 than the poor buggers stuck in the middle. Go figure.

In response, the Children's Rights Alliance admirably refused to let a little thing like a lack of support for its position put it off and just repeated the traditional call for an outright ban on corporal punishment anyway.

If ever there was a dialogue of the deaf, this is it. Both sides in the smacking debate made up their minds about where they stood a long time ago, and nothing short of a miracle will ever change that. Which is why the Government should just get on with making a decision instead of commissioning lengthy, expensive surveys on attitudes to smacking when there are already scores of other studies on the effects of corporal punishment in the home gathering dust on the shelves. That's what we elect governments to do.

As for which way Barry Andrews should go, a ban of some sort probably makes most sense. All the evidence is that smacking is counterproductive. It produces short-term compliance, because no sensible child wants to be hit again, but leads to long-term resistance, especially in boys, who are statistically more likely to be on the receiving end.

Adults who were hit as children are also more likely to be angry, violent low achievers who abuse alcohol when they grow up, as well as having reduced IQ -- a point vividly illustrated by many of the more enthusiastic advocates of smacking, who seem to get pathologically irate at the prospect of not being allowed to whack children anymore. It never did them any harm, is what they always say. Er, do you want to take a vote on that, people? Nor is there much evidence that countries which ban smacking succumb to hordes of disrespectful, anti-social youngsters who never learned the difference between right and wrong. Teenagers in Luxembourg are probably far less scary than the ones here at home who've been brought up by the rod for fear that we'd otherwise spoil the child.

Plus, a ban's eventually going to happen anyway, so why not now?

Not that outlawing smacking would necessarily do any good. The record of central government when it tries to promote virtue is so poor that it shouldn't surprise anyone if, five years after the introduction of a ban, child-beating has become the new national sport.

For one thing, the law wouldn't be enforced. Garda resources are stretched. They'd be better off using those precious man hours to tackle serious abuse.

For another, even if the law was enforced, does anyone seriously want to see parents shamed in court, perhaps even fined or jailed, for slapping junior occasionally for pulling his little sister's pigtails?

That smacks, pun intended, of a nannying and draconian spirit.

Why ban the practice at all then, if it wouldn't and probably shouldn't be enforced, and wouldn't work even if it was? Because hitting children is wrong. OK, so sometimes parents at the end of their tether lose it and aim a slap, feel terribly guilty about it afterwards, and privately pledge not to do it again. Then do, because nobody's perfect and children can be insufferable, irritating little brats who'd drive Buddha to distraction. It can happen to the best of us. But that doesn't mean you should formalise your worst urges into some grand theory of childrearing.

The State might not be able to stop parents smacking their children, but that doesn't mean it can't show disapproval of one section of the population walloping another section purely on the basis that the wallopees are smaller and the wallopers were involved in their procreation. Banning it might only be symbolic, but symbols matter.

Adult men and women can't hit one another. Try slapping your wife in front of a guard and see how that one goes.

Logically, it could be argued that grown men and woman ought to be more capable of dealing with such situations than children, but it's the adults who have the full force of the law to protect them. Society even condemns men who subject their partners to what it calls psychological abuse.

Men and women aren't free to speak to one another in ways which might conceivably cause one party upset, but you can still hit children. It doesn't make sense. Unless you think of children as personal property, of course, in which case knocking them about is no worse than smashing a window in your own greenhouse. The difference is that greenhouses don't grow up to hit other greenhouses. Children do.

Sunday Independent

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