Banning smacking: protecting children or assaulting family life?
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The Welsh Government has announced plans to launch a public consultation on removing the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ allowing parents who use mild forms of physical punishment to be charged with common assault. Proponents argue the continued existence of this defence is outdated; it’s time to finally call an end to corporal punishment by making it illegal. Opponents see a ban as an unwelcome government intrusion into the private sphere of family life, potentially moving thousands of families into the purview of social services and the law.
For campaigners on both sides, there is a lot at stake. Those in favour of a ban point to the need to protect children from ‘assault’ and resulting life-long struggles with mental ill-health. According to clinical psychologist Emma Citron, ‘Smacking is always damaging to a child’s emotional wellbeing’. Critics point to increasing distrust and surveillance of family life, the undermining of parental and adult authority over children, and the conflation of loving parents with ‘child abusers’.
While over 50 countries have banned smacking, legislation has never been introduced with popular support. In spite of opposition, New Zealand banned smacking in 2007, later ignoring results of a 2009 referendum in which 87% of the population voted to overturn the ban. Welsh popular opinion appears to be following suit with a recent survey indicating 76% opposed the ban. For campaigners, unpopularity is part of the problem. Proponents, including the Welsh Children’s Commissioner, have argued politicians should have the courage to go against popular opinion in order to ‘accelerate a cultural change’ and promote ‘positive parenting’.
Some commentators worry that discussions of the effectiveness of a parenting style and hyperbolic fears about mental illness or ‘out of control kids’ miss out crucial questions about who precisely decides how children are raised and who ultimately is responsible for family life. Are governments legitimate in acting without a popular mandate when the welfare of children is at stake? Should smacking be considered to be on a par with abuse or violence? In a climate of growing sensitivity to real and potential risks to children, to what extent do we need to give parents the space to raise their children as they see fit?