Smacking and Children

“Smacking” is a commonly accepted term for the (light) hitting of children in the name of discipline. Many parents smack their children with the belief that it will deter them from bad behaviour and that they themselves were smacked as children and are no worse for wear. Other parents view smacking as child abuse and refuse to engage in the practice. Today smacking remains a legal (in some cases) but highly controversial method of discipline.

Smacking and the Law in the United Kingdom

Prior to 1998, British parents were afforded the right to use “reasonable chastisement” to discipline their children but the subjective term “reasonable” was never well explained. In September of that year, the European Court of Human Rights decided that this law did not adequately protect children’s rights and so the Children’s Act of 2004 sought to clarify the laws surrounding smacking. Under Section 58 of the Act, smacking remains legal as long as it does not cause visible bruises, grazes, scratches, swelling or cuts. As of June 2007, these conditions provoked a Ministerial review of Section 58 of the Children’s Act with some Ministers again calling for an outright ban on smacking children. Scotland operates some smacking bans, and strict definitions of “reasonable” punishments. The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People is seeking a full and outright ban on smacking children.

Smacking as Discipline

Parents who smack children usually do so by swatting a child on the bottom, causing many to argue that smacking a child wearing a nappy does not harm a child’s body. These parents believe that they are conditioning children to associate negative behaviours with negative consequences. This may be true, but opponents of smacking argue that this does not teach children anything – the key difference between simply punishing children and disciplining children in an instructive manner. These parents often recommend discipline techniques that require thought and reflection on inappropriate behaviour instead of smacking. Some of these techniques include:

  • Time Out – removing a child from a situation instigating inappropriate behaviour for a set number of minutes. Often an explanation and/or apology are required before a Time Out can end.
  • The Naughty Step – requiring a child to sit on a particular step (or rug, or mat, etc.) while they reflect on their inappropriate behaviour. Again, an explanation and/or apology are often required before the child is allowed off of the Naughty Step.
  • Grounding – prohibiting a child from attending particular social events or from engaging in particular activities. This technique may also incorporate particular tasks or chores which must be carried out instead and are designed to teach children appropriate behaviour.
  • Taking Away Privileges – prohibiting a child from taking advantage of certain privileges (usually those that they have earlier abused with inappropriate behaviour). Privileges are usually restored when a child can prove, through his/her behaviour, that (s)he understands and appreciates them.

Smacking, or the light hitting of a child, remains legal within certain guidelines throughout the United Kingdom. Political opponents of smacking are now calling for outright bans on the practice while parental opponents of smacking are waging informational campaigns to educate smacking parents about the alternatives. Though it remains legal, smacking is highly controversial in the UK and could become illegal in the near future.

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