Adults are already protected from assault by law, it’s time to afford children the same rights, argues Anne Houston
Can you imagine a parliament passing a law that says assault on women, or the elderly, or the disabled is “justified”?
Neither can we at Children 1st. But that’s exactly what we have in this country in relation to children, who don’t have the same rights to protection from assault that we, as adults, enjoy.
Young people are one of the most vulnerable groups in our society and – because the law allows their physical punishment – many are still subject to physical abuse, embarrassment and humiliation. We know, because we work with these children every day.
Calls to the helplines ChildLine and ParentLine Scotland, say the same thing about physical punishment – it doesn’t work. Children talk about being slapped or hit and it often leaving bruises, which shows the line of what is legal and what isn’t is blurred. We know too that parents say they often feel guilty afterwards.
We have a chance to change this for children and for adults.
The UK is one of only four countries in Europe which have not already implemented (or are about to implement) a ban on physical punishment – we are violating UN and EU treaties by not abolishing it.
While other countries move forward on this issue, with Wales looking likely to remove the “reasonable punishment” defence at the next legislative opportunity, we seem reluctant to recognise that things have moved on.
In the media this week it was interesting to hear from parents on the “smacking debate”. Some people said that being smacked “never did them any harm” whilst others, mainly the younger generation, said they would never hit their children.
We are often asked for research to “prove” that physical punishment harms children. Even though this exists and we could bamboozle readers with the statistics it’s worth pointing out that in arguing for the elimination of violence against women we don’t look for research into its effects – it would be insulting to do so.
The fact is that other methods of parenting are more effective and should be encouraged. Children should be given clear and consistent boundaries, and smacking is not an effective way of doing this.
What do we do if we’re not smacking? We talk calmly to children at their level, explaining to them the behaviour we want and need to see; we are noticing all the good things they do instead of only pointing out all the naughty things; we are clear and consistent; we are using time out or removing privileges as punishment.
Children exhibit learned behaviour. If we legitimise violence as a tool of anger or retribution there’s a good chance they’ll use that tool on other children or on adults in later life.
This week we’ve been asked what a revised law should look like and it’s important to note that this issue is a sensitive one which requires a lot more discussion as to how legislation could be worded, how we could go about educating and supporting the public and how it would be applied.
Nineteen European countries have already taken this step, there haven’t been mass arrests of parents, nor has there been an up-swing in the number of children hurt because they ran into traffic or burned their hands in fires without someone to warn them off it with a slap.
There is no merit in criminalising parents. Taking trivial assaults to court would not be in the public interest. It is not in the child’s interests to remove parents or to prosecute them. This is not what we want to see.
The purpose of all good law is to prevent crime – in this case preventing assaults on children. It’s about changing attitudes and behaviour.
Once the law is changed, the behaviour follows. Just look at laws around seat belts, or drink-driving.
The Scottish Government has set out its vision for Scotland to be the “best place in the world for children to grow up”. As an organisation which feels passionately about making things better for children we agree. Giving children the same rights to protection from assault as adults would be an important start.
This view is supported by Aberlour Child Care Trust and NSPCC Scotland.
• Anne Houston is chief executive of CHILDREN 1ST, a member of the Children Are Unbeatable Alliance Scotland
A group of children’s charities is calling for a ban on smacking youngsters to be introduced in Scotland.
The Children are Unbeatable coalition argues young people should have the same protection from assault as adults.
It is already illegal to physically punish children by shaking them or hitting them with any implement.
Foster carers, teachers and others who work with children are prohibited from using physical punishment such as smacking, but parents are not.
In 2002, the Labour/Lib Dem coalition dropped plans for a ban after they were deemed unworkable.
A consultation is currently under way on the SNP government’s proposals for the Children and Young People’s Bill.
Parents are banned from seriously assaulting children, but anything else is considered “reasonable chastisement”.