IT was only a matter of time before another attempt to ban the smacking of children by parents would rear its head again at Holyrood. There were those who were keen on such a ban back in the early days of the Parliament, but it was resisted and so, of all people, the Liberal Democrat Jim Wallace, then Justice Minister, announced there would be no ban.
Now our SNP government has said it will support a Member’s Bill for such a ban, which means in all likelihood it will be passed, for when has there ever been a significant revolt among SNP MSPs against party instructions?
With the undoubted support of many Labour and Green members, only the Conservatives will be likely to speak out against the ban.
Politicians like to tell us how to lead our lives, for most it is their default position, and so the majority will favour a ban, requiring an enormous amount of extra-parliamentary campaigning to stop it.
So yet again a majority of politicians will rush to do something they never gave a commitment to do in any literature or speeches. Is that really democracy?
Where has been the clamour for this ban? Where are the court cases against parents for smacking, igniting public concern that “something must be done”?
The reason this subject has been confined to charities and activists concerned with the rights of children (as opposed to the rights of parents who carry all the legal responsibility for care) is that the current law works.
You cannot just hit your kid. A supermarket tantrum does not give parents free rein for an over-the-knee smacking. You can be prosecuted if you hit a child with an implement such as a ruler or stick and violent shaking is out – parent or not.
The law only allows ‘reasonable chastisement’ and a court will take into account what that has happened, how the punishment was dispensed and if it was a proportionate response.
In other words, the law seeks to protect children from parents losing their temper and lashing out and physical abuse (repeated or not), while leaving them to be parents and making the judgement when a short smack is appropriate.
The fact that there are few cases brought before our courts of parents smacking their children to discipline them – while there are examples of parents being prosecuted for physical abuse – demonstrates the law is able to distinguish between the good intentions of parents and when they either go too far or are abusive. What this tells us is that a ban is not, in fact, needed. For if we bring in a ban we remove from parents a vital tool in protecting and disciplining their children.
Parents should be free to judge if their children should feel a short application of pain to stop them biting or kicking another child – or to warn of a greater pain or injury (or worse) if they are about to touch something or swallow something extremely dangerous.
A child physically chastised by a parent for showing violence is surely less likely to repeat the exercise, while a child only denied a privilege is more likely to receive a violent response from an intended victim, either immediately or later in life, that is far worse than any parental punishment.
That violence may beget violence is true; it is far better, then, that it is dispensed with love as a corrective measure than by another child fighting back even more violently after the fact.
The point is that smacking should be used exclusively to teach a lesson about danger and misbehaviour.
To criminalise parents who, in caring for their children, use physical punishment is a state intervention too far.
Let the courts find the balance. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?