Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Ed Balls on smacking

There's a story on the BBC news website right now about the exemption whereby some schools, if open for less than 12.5 hours a week, are not covered by the government's ban on smacking in its own schools - which was later extended to cover private schools also. (Creep, creep - always the clever politician's way with unpopular measures - do it slowly).

Ed Balls, the relevant government minister, has made a statement that goes far beyond the issue at hand, however:
"The use of physical punishment against any child is wrong; it is outside the law and is not fair to children. I do not think that we should tolerate any use of physical punishment in any school or learning setting in which trusted adults are supposed to be looking after children, not abusing them."
These two sentences are a catalogue of non-sequitors and straw men. But I'm also wondering at the context - the physical punishment of children in the UK is not outside the law, but specifically allowed (with the proviso that no lasting mark must be left).

The words "or learning setting" also send chills down my spine given that Balls has been targetting home education lately, seeking to hand various parental rights over to the state.

But my main points here would be this: I don't believe there's any rational argument against physical punishment of children which doesn't ultimately apply against any punishment of children. And then again, if it applies to any punishment of children, likewise it does to grown-ups. Punishment inherently is painful in some sense, otherwise it is not punishment. And all the arguments made that physical punishments are wrong have their point in the pain, not in the physicality of the pain. If infliction of physical pain is automatically "abuse" as it is here caricatured, then why not any other form of pain and hence any other punishment? The division is arbitrary.

The anti-smacking arguments prove too much. In my opinion smacking is much kinder than pyschological forms of punishment which leave lingering unpleasantness. An explanation of the crime that the child can understand and see the wrong in, an explanation that wrong should be punished, a quick smack, a cuddle and then back to joyful learning and play - that's all it has to be. The real problem is that this implies ideas about justice, crime and punishment that the secular mind does not like and that's why they want to get rid of it. Yes, some parents might go too far - but "thin end of the wedge" arguments make appallingly bad law. Shall we ban all knives from your home and kitchen because some people use them for murder? Ban cars because there exist bad drivers?

The problem with stigmatising the "kind smack" as described above as "abusing" children is not simply that it drags a simple smack into the category of child abuse and makes it look bad. It's also that it trivialises real child abuse. We know little children who really have been abused in horrific ways. For Mr. Balls to lump what they've suffered in the same category as a loving tap on the wrist is a gigantic insult, and a belittling of the real horrors they have endured.


Watcher said...

David, I can't disagree with you more. I can see no reason at all to strike a child. Hitting anyone is an offense against the person bodily (obviously) and at first blush teaches that violence is an option when change is required. This is not a cute left reflex on my part; politically, culturally and theologically I am conservative, but I am not therefore pro physical impact punishments. Striking anyone tells them that their body is in your rights, by extension this can easily slide into the physical abuse that has been meeted out to generations of children in schools and other institutions, including the family home. Your simple 'smack' can easily turn into a fatal blow delivered by a someone without your sensibilities. Indeed there is a recent case in Australia where such punishment got out of hand and the child (2yo) was beaten to death by his stupid parents.
My own experience as a father is that physical punishment is never indicated or needed. Our children do not run amok. They are polite, respectful and attentive.

David Anderson said...

Hi Watcher,

Thanks for the interaction.

I think your response is not logically coherent on two grounds:

1) The "thin end of the wedge" argument. You argue that light smacking should not be allowed because it might slide into abuse, or that if I'm allowed to smack my children, other parents might beat theirs. On this basis we'll have to remove every civil liberty that exists anywhere - because which of them can't be abused?
If some other parent might abuse their child when given permission to smack, then equally they might also smack their child when forbidden to - so this prohibition achieves nothing. And especially prohibiting me to do something because of what someone else might do is absurd.

2) The argument that smacking somehow teaches that "violence is an option" is also bogus. By the same logic, sending a child to its room would teach that kidnapping was an option. Confiscating their toys would teach that theft is an option.
Of course, if the parent angrily lashes out instead of explaining and being self-controlled, then the child might misunderstand. But angrily lashing out without self-control is no more *essential* to smacking than drinking 10 pints of cider is to driving. Yet nobody argues that all cars must be banned because of drunk drivers.

Ultimately though, your argument is contrary to the Bible, which not only allows but actually mandates physical punishments for children. This is not cruel, but wise - the Bible has a realistic view of us. If your reading of your own experience contradicts the Bible, then it can't be correct.


gingoro said...

David I agree with you on this issue. Yes some people go way to far but that needs to be dealt with on an individual basis.

We are much better at expressing issues that are black and white than at communicating degree. In terms of spanking, degree is hard to communicate wrt how often, what severity of transgression merits a smack or spank and how severe the punishment should be. Clearly drawing blood is very wrong as one house "parent" did at boarding school. Actually I refer to such people as sadists.

Ned Kelly said...

Watcher, anecdotally, I have to disgree with you, and for all the reasons given by him, I agree with David. I spent 8 years at a Catholic Boys Boarding school, was smacked for transgressions, even given the choice of punishment type, yet grew up as a gentle man in every sense who has never had a physical fight. That some children grow up well without physical punishment is simply anecdotal evidence such as mine. I had two children, one needed smacking to get the point, one didn't. Given the choice between seeking advice from liberal psychologists or the Bible, I'll go with the latter every time.

gingoro said...


Spare the Spanking, Spoil the Report Card?

Among other things it reports on a study done at Calvin College which is a school supported by our denomination.

Dave W