“We have been rather disturbed by the news item that smacking two disobedient sons led to a father being taken to court for child abuse - even though the case was eventually dismissed. Surely there is a big difference between the deliberate infliction of cruelty on helpless children and a parent correcting his child the same way he was corrected? I have caned my son when necessary just as my father did to me.”
A few weeks ago a secretary I knew chose to take early retirement. She had fast typing speeds but had not learned to use a word processor. At first sight her experience has nothing in common with Mr R.’s concerns. However, registering and accommodating changes in life is disturbing and not always possible to accomplish. It can be painful and disconcerting to find that what you have personally found acceptable is seen as outmoded or damaging. One shocked parent, whose child was removed as a result of physical abuse, commented- “But I have hardly touched her compared to what my parents did to me and nothing happened to them”.
Brett Kahr of the British Institute for Psychohistory is well aware of such problems. “I do appreciate that it is personally unfair that a parent can be taken to court for something less serious than their own parent had the legal freedom to do to them but at some point legislation and intervention has to occur to change the direction. It is a step forward for children.”
Only a few years ago there was a test case in the European Court of Human Rights as to whether a British private school was allowed to cane a child. State schools banned all corporal punishment over 10 years ago. We now have the social anomaly that children are the only people who can be hit with relative impunity in their own homes.
In 1755 a young mother, Esther Burr, wrote to a friend that she had given her daughter her first whipping. “Although she is not quite ten months old…I think ’tis time she should be taught” . Whilst few parents nearly 250 years later would consider whipping a baby, child psychologist Penelope Leach, has found that a surprisingly large number of English mothers hit their babies of under one year old (60%) even though babies under one year can not be seen as responsible for their actions in any way. The use of special terms like “smack”, “slap”, “spank” and “correct” for hitting children disguises the nature of the interaction and the difficulty of the parent by confusing discipline with physical punishment.
A founder member of Epoch, the organisation trying to outlaw corporal punishment, Penelope Leach points out “Unfortunately many people see anti-smacking as anti-discipline because, like Mr R, they equate discipline with punishing. The aim of discipline is to teach children to behave acceptably not to physically punish them for behaving unacceptably. Physical punishment will not die out by itself. We have to help the people who say it didn’t do them any harm understand the trans-generational nature of the transmission.”
Indeed, with a few exceptions of particularly cruel parents against whom the law does provide adequate safeguards, the majority of parents are, for better or for worse, as Mr R points out, transmitting the example of their own parents. That example, across all social classes, is not very promising. Dr Chris Hobbs, Consultant Community Paediatrician in Leeds comments “ 8 out of every 10 medical students I teach feel it is alright to hit children. The two who don’t are usually the ones who were not hit in their own childhood.” However, Dr Hobbs sees one small sign of change. “ The unnamed father in the court case said he had given his sons 3 of the best. It is encouraging to hear it has gone down from 6 of the best to 3 of the best. But is it really the best we can do?”
As Peter Wilson, Director of Young Minds, comments “What we know is that the more you beat children the more they will beat other children and other people and property. It just passes on from one generation to another. We have to help people understand that a man hitting a boy is just bullying. A strong father is a man who can say no with authority and conviction and can say why as well”.
How do we help adults to change their practice? Mr R has had the ability to notice that even though this case was dismissed the law can intervene on behalf of children, challenging the physical authority of the parent. He has also recognised that his actions to his son are modelled on his father’s behaviour to him. Perhaps it is possible for him to consider other non-physical ways in which his father was able to influence his behaviour for the better. Many adults, out of loyalty to their parents, initially find it hard to see the ways in which they have perpetuated unhelpful behaviour.
However, if all adults did exactly the same as their own parents did we would still be in prehistoric times! Change is never too late. “I was relieved when my son finally found non-physical ways of disciplining his children “ said one retired teacher. “It was rather unpleasant to be regularly reminded of how intolerant I was. Now I am a kindlier grandparent than I was a parent it is good to see my son can also change for the best”
Marianne Parsons, child psychotherapist at the Portman Clinic comments, “All parents have the urge to hit out at their child and many may act on this urge when they reach the limits of exasperation and lose the capacity to think. However, when a parent resorts to physical punishment he or she is, by example, teaching the child that aggressive force is acceptable. A child who has been helped to value and respect himself by getting explanations not coercion is more likely to value and respect other people and their property.”