Children’s well-being: the state versus parents?
In September, the Welsh Assembly voted to repeal the ‘reasonable chastisement’ defence for parents. The vote was the first step to a ban on smacking in Wales. Scotland has gone once step further, with Holyrood voting to confirm a smacking ban in October.
While unreasonable physical punishment and abuse are already against the law – in fact, anything that causes more than transient reddening of the skin is prohibited – anti-smacking campaigners point to what they believe is evidence of harm from mild forms of physical chastisement. And yet, in a recent consultation, two-thirds of the Welsh public rejected the government’s plans. Many respondents defended the freedom of parents to make decisions about the well-being of their own children.
In response, the health minister, Julie Morgan AM, said that it is ‘the state’s job to create the sort of atmosphere where using physical violence is wrong’. She added: ‘Who is bringing up the child – the state or the parents? It should be the parents with guidance and protection from the state.’ In this way, an increased concern with managing child well-being appears to also lead to more ‘positive’ forms of stipulating correct parental behaviours, sometimes utilising the criminal law as a means to do so.
Over the past decade, there has been a shift from a focus on harm to children to a more diffuse concern with childhood ‘well-being’ or ‘happiness’. This lowering of the bar appears to have gone hand in hand with greater tolerance of state intervention into family life. For example, the Welsh legislation will be accompanied by a campaign to ‘help parents better understand the benefits of positive parenting techniques’, which some critics labelled ‘patronising’. The Scottish government’s recently scrapped ‘Named Person’ scheme attempted to appoint a state guardian for all children up to 18 years of age to monitor their family life and oversee their happiness. The legislation would have lowered the bar for intervention from ‘risk of significant harm’ to ‘risk to well-being’, the latter of which is notoriously difficult to define. Yet the move was framed as a way of ‘helping parents’.
In the quest to improve child well-being, have parents and policymakers come to occupy adversarial roles? Is there an inevitable tension between the state and parental authority? Has the concern for well-being ‘lowered the bar’ for intervention into family life? And if so, should such moves be welcomed or resisted?