The debate over hitting children was reignited last week when David Lammy, the Labour MP for Tottenham, said that the 2004 changes to the law on smacking children were partly to blame for the social disorder during last summer's riots in London. (The Labour changes to the law made it illegal to 'redden the skin'.)
Daily Telegraph columnist, Cristina Odone, wrote a column supporting his view, saying working class parents in particular are too afraid to hit their children in case social services swoops in and takes them away. The fear of hitting kids, she contends, reduces parental authority resulting in a feeling of powerlessness and the creation of badly behaved young adults.
Most people agree with them. An online poll from the Daily Telegraph reveals that 85% of the over 4,400 people surveyed believe, "A light smack is essential for discipline."
Now I'm a tough disciplinarian. I'm not afraid of saying, 'no'. I don't particularly care if my children like me. I care if they respect me. Kids need to be punished when they're bad or deliberately disobey, and regular discipline is needed for children to become moral, well-mannered and properly behaved adults.
The problem I see with the Lammy/Odone argument is that it's sloppy reasoning to say that corporal punishment is the same as discipline, or even a necessary part of discipline.
I'm against hitting children for two reasons. First, I think it's wrong to use force, violence or intimidation against another person, regardless of their age. Then again, I can't say I'm an opponent of war when faced with an immoral enemy; unfortunately sometimes violence is the only answer to stop a malign force so I understand that I may seem inconsistent here.
So maybe my second reason could be more persuasive for its pragmatism: It doesn't work.
Maybe you're thinking, "Rubbish! Of course it works." Everyone knows that when you hit a kid, they usually immediately stop doing what they're doing and are less likely to do it again. Plus, sometimes those little runts deserve it.
But having read the research, I had to change my mind.
Hundreds of academic studies have shown that in the long-run, hitting can damage a child's self-esteem, make them resentful, angry, more aggressive, and violent, and lead to more bad behaviour. It's also not effective because it ultimately undermines a parent's moral authority. Not only that, but if the threat of corporal punishment is the driving force behind a child's willingness to behave, he is less likely to develop an intrinsic sense of morality.
I know I'm in the minority of people who oppose hitting. Most people I know smack their kids. Before I had children, I was never against it. Hitting was very common when I was growing up, and I was personally used to it when I was naughty. I used to think people who objected to it were those (literally) limp-wristed liberal moral weaklings who didn't have the strength to discpline their kids. And some opponents of hitting are. Think of all those parents out there who just won't put their foot down.
Still, I had to reconsider when I read the research and thought about it more.
Maybe most people disagree with me because they have different reasons for punishing their children than I do. Some parents who hit may believe that punishment is about retribution. Others care solely about immediately stopping a specific behaviour and preventing it from happening again. Still others might feel the only way they can establish their authority over a child is to dominate and threaten them with force.
I punish my children because I think it is a necessary part of moral training, and central to creating well-behaved, moral, secure, and happy children. I don't want to humiliate or shame them, undermine their sense of self worth, or ever let them doubt that I love them. I want to teach them. I punish to train and reform. But punishment is just one tool in discipline. Effective discipline also relies on positive reinforcement and love. (A child who is actively praised when they do good is less likely to be motivated to misbehave.)
I've chosen my methods carefully because I also know that if I do anything to lose their trust and respect, like hitting them, I risk my effectiveness to train them. Beyond that, how could I claim to be a successful moral teacher if my children may just be complying with good behaviour because they are afraid of me?
The truth about 'smacking', as Odone seems to admit from her personal experience in her article, is that many parents hit their kids when they feel out of control, lashing out with impulsive anger, and not from a rational, well thought-out approach to discipline. Not only that, but I refuse to believe that most parents who regularly use corporal punishment limit themselves to a 'light smack'. Over time, it tends to escalate.
So you know what Mr Lammy? I can see why you think those looters deserved to be smacked, but I'd advise you to smack their parents instead. They are the ones who failed to discipline their children properly; if anything, I bet they hit their kids regularly, creating adolescents that believe violence and lawlessness are acceptable. Studies of prison populations show that the most violent criminals grew up in violent homes.
Yes, I am in the small minority of respondents in the Telegraph poll who said, "No, violence is never the answer." From research and experience, I think hitting is wrong and unnecessary. There are plenty of other punishments that work.
And to anyone who mocks the idea of 'hugging a hoodie', I do too. By the time they're a hoodie, it's too late. I say, 'Hug her before she becomes a hoodie', and punish her without violence. Parents who aren't prepared to do that should raise their hand and accept they are contributing to our social decay.
Bad parenting is the cause of violent youths, not sparing the rod. Time for parents to step up and take responsibility.