Children's Tsar Wastes Breath About Smacking

Children's Commissioner
Dr Maggie Atkinson

Children's 'Tsar' Maggie Atkinson has said in an interview with the Independent that she believes that smacking should be made illegal. Unfortunately she has once again squandered an opportunity to win round those who didn't already agree with her by totally failing to employ any sensible arguments to back up her opinion.

Whatever views one holds on the great smacking debate, I would hope that we could all agree that we expect the holder of such a high-profile post as Children's Commissioner (funded, of course, by public money) to be able to defend a point of view with more than emotive language, a middle-class sense of outrage, an apparent belief that all rational people must surely agree, and an implication that anybody who thinks differently is tantamount to a child abuser.

Let's take a quick look at some of the main points she makes:

“Personally, having been a teacher, and never having had an issue where I’d need to use physical punishment, I believe we should move to ban it”

This is irrelevant. Schools are not at all the same places as homes. Teachers do not bear the final and ultimate responsibility for raising children - parents do. Teachers have recourse to a higher authority when facing disciplinary problems and, as a last resort, the child can be excluded from school and the discipline problem removed forever. Parents do not have this luxury. Teachers spend a few hours each day with large groups of children, punctuated by regular breaks and evenings and weekends off in an environment where there are lots of other adults around. Having been both a teacher and a parent, I know that these two situations are in no way comparable. Oh, and teachers are allowed to use 'reasonable force' in managing extreme situations, so the myth of no contact hardly applies.

 “Because in law you are forbidden from striking another adult, and from physically chastising your pets, but somehow there is a loophole around the fact that you can physically chastise your child."

This is a common argument used by anti-smacking proponents - it's not ok to hit an adult so it shouldn't be ok to hit a child. But it's a flawed argument. There are many, many things that we do to children that are not usually appropriate to do to an adult - spoon feeding, bathing, nappy changing, making them sleep and play in cages (cots and playpens), making them wear reins or hold our hands, keeping them in detention at school, making them sit in disgrace on a naughty step - the list goes on and on. We treat children differently from adults because they are different. Children are not miniature adults and it is the responsibility of the adults around them (specifically their parents) to keep them safe, care for them, educate them and train them until they are able to function independently. Whether physical chastisement should be a part of that is a matter of opinion, but this particular argument does nothing to advance the debate.

And on the issue of physical violence not being acceptable among adults, I'd love to know what Dr Atkinson would do if she found an intruder in her home and she happened to have a heavy frying pan in her hand. Even among adults, we accept that under certain circumstances, physical action can be acceptable and even necessary.

“It’s a moral  issue. The morals are that, taken to its extreme, physical chastisement is actually physical abuse and I have never understood where you can draw the line between one and the other."

This one makes me crazy. Anything, if taken to extreme, can be abuse. I encourage my son to drink water but if I held him down and poured it into his mouth, that would be abuse. I think I know where to draw the line. I allow my son certain freedoms. But if I allowed him total freedom so that I did not prevent him from being put in danger, then that would be abuse. Maybe Dr Atkinson doesn't know where to draw the line, but parents have to find that balance every single day of their children's lives. Why should they find the line between physical chastisement and abuse any harder to find than, say, the line between encouraging healthy eating and force feeding? Laws already exist to define abuse and punish those who are guilty of it. Banning smacking because some people abuse their children is like banning beer because some people abuse alcohol.

“Better by far that you are taught not to need to use physical strength against a weaker human being.”

Parents turn their physical strength to their advantage all the time when dealing with children. We carry them where we want them to go, lift them into their cots, high chairs etc. even when they protest, hold them in a vice-like grip while the doctors stick them with vaccination needles, pull them from danger and so on and so on. What's the difference between using your physical strength in those ways, and using it in a disciplinary context? Clearly there are certain circumstances where it is acceptable and even desirable for parents to take advantage of their physical strength, and those who say that physical chastisement is not one of those circumstances need to do more to explain why.

How can anybody hope to persuade or convince others of the validity of their views when the standard of debate is so appallingly low? The BBC website report on this same article states: "The NSPCC has said evidence is building that smacking is "ineffective and harmful to children". Well, if there is so much evidence, then why doesn't the Children's Commissioner use some of it to back up her opinions? Either the evidence doesn't exist, or Dr Atkinson is not interested in it.

And why should she be interested? Far too many of those appointed to positions like Dr Atkinson's seem to live in a sheltered world where everybody basically holds the same views, and anybody who doesn't is considered ignorant. Opinions are regularly presented as self-evident facts with nothing to support them except emotive rhetoric.

The comments below the BBC article pretty accurately demonstrate how effective Maggie Atkinson's comments have been in winning over doubters. At the time I checked there were 55 comments, overwhelmingly disagreeing with a ban on smacking. Of the few that agreed that smacking should be illegal, almost every one relied on the tiresome illogic that smacking children leads to violent adults. This is not only patently untrue, but rather insulting to millions of adults who received the odd smack as a child and yet have managed to live lives unpunctuated by acts of random violence and subsequent lengthy prison sentences.

For me, the smacking debate is not really about smacking. It's about how far the government should be able to reach into people's homes and private lives with their legislation. As a person with growing libertarian tendencies, I'd prefer less government in my house, but I do understand that sometimes legislation is needed to protect from a well-evidenced threat. Hence I didn't object to the ban on smoking in public places.

But if the government is going to legislate about what goes on in an individual's home then the legislation should be based on strong evidence that has been well-established and debated (not just personal distaste for the choices and lifestyles of others) and there needs to be a consensus that education alone will not achieve positive results. The debate over smacking is rarely, if ever, dignified with actual research evidence to support either viewpoint. 

Such legislation also needs to be enforceable. Passing legislation that is effectively unenforceable cheapens the whole body of the law, and encourages the attitude that the law only matters if you get caught breaking it. We already have laws to protect children from physical abuse and we are clearly unable to fully enforce these as recent high-profile cases have demonstrated. How will it add to our ability to protect children from abuse to have law enforcement bodies prosecuting and criminalising parents for giving their kids a smack on the back of the hand?

If the Children's Commissioner truly wants to see a ban on smacking, and is at all interested in convincing people of her point of view, then she needs to get serious about presenting a well-informed and properly evidenced argument. Otherwise, she is just blowing hot air in the faces of people who already agree with everything she says, while provoking everyone else to become even more entrenched in their opposition.

Come on Dr Atkinson - surely you can do better than this.


  1. There is a significant amount of research that smacking is effective under the correct circumstances. A single swat to the backside in order to stop a dangerous behavior or gain attention in a child under 7. It should be reserved for extremes only that are not caused by emotional distress i.e. tantrum or fear. It's not used a form of discipline more of a was to interrupt dangerous behavior. The obvious also applies never use an object or hit in the face or use threats to incite fear.

  2. The commissioner is correct in that there is very little boundary between smacking and abuse, as inarticulate as her explanation is. It's very easy to go from smacking on the bottom to indiscriminately hitting the child all over if you are angry enough. Over time little smacks may stop working as the child becomes used to being hit, and more violent actions may be needed to get the same level of compliance. This can eventually lead to serious injury. This grey area in the law means that genuinely abusive parents can justify their child's mistreatment by claiming it was 'just a smack'and talking about how naughty their child has been, gaining sympathy and deflecting attention away from a child in need. Besides, studies suggest that smacked children have lower IQs on average, and simply toned-down versions of the issues associated with more serious physical child abuse. It was once considered appropriate to hit your spouse, but through a modern lens we now see that, as difficult as one's spouse can be, reasonable communication and consequences for poor behaviour are more appropriate than physically assaulting them. If a child is too young to be communicated with logically (i.e: under 3) then they are also probably too young to understand the meaning of their actions and thus to be 'naughty'. Therefore hitting a very little child is pointless because they probably don't understand why it's happening, and so learn nothing from the experience. Furthermore, firm boundaries are often enough. If the child knows that every time they get out of bed past bed time they will be put straight in again without a word, they will stop coming down. Consistency halts most poor behaviour. When you hit a child, who depends on you for everything, it tells them that the one person in the world who is supposed to keep them safe (their parent) is a threat to them, and this can really damage the parent-child bond, and the child's feelings of security in general. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can develop after a person has an experience that makes them fear for their life. The one person who is supposed to keep you safe (and is three times your size) turning round and hitting you for seemingly no reason (children often can't tell that you're at the end of your rag) can be enough to cause long-term mental health issues in some children. If a person is angry enough to feel the need to hit their child then it suggests that they need to calm down and reconsider their approach, as many parents manage to raise thoughtful, kind, capable adults without ever laying a finger on them, purely because they use different, safer, parenting techniques.


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