One year on from the smacking ban, parents need help, says Nuala Woulfe
To smack or not to smack is still a divisive issue in Western society.
Last year the Pope caused controversy when he suggested smacking children by parents could be loving if a child’s dignity was maintained, the Australian book the Slap and the subsequent 2015 US television series of the same name, sparked debate on both continents where smacking children is still permitted, and our closest neighbours, the UK still permit smacking if it doesn’t leave a mark on a child’s skin.
Here in Ireland we have only recently followed the lead of Sweden which introduced the world’s first smacking ban of children in 1979.
It’s been one year exactly since, under Irish law parents can no longer slap a child and say it was their parental right as they were only using, ‘reasonable chastisement.’
But one year on, do the majority of parents know the law has changed?
Have parents altered behaviour, have cases come to court, have parents from different countries living in Ireland been informed and are there enough supports to allow parents find alternatives to smacking?
Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance believes, the majority of people in Ireland do not know the law has changed.
“There hasn’t been any public education. Firstly, we didn’t seek an outright legal ban on smacking we just removed the right to reasonable chastisement. What legal bans have done in other countries is they’ve acted like an advertising campaign and made a public statement that smacking is wrong. I’d like to see some national awareness happening through support services and potentially translated into different languages too.”
Ms Ward stresses the UN Human Rights Committee, while welcoming Ireland’s change to the law, has also called for Irish parents to be educated on alternative forms of discipline and to be supported more in parenting.
“Parents need to be mentored and unless you as a parent go looking for a support programme, and a lot of people don’t have access to one, it’s difficult.”
Ms Ward believes existing structures also need to be used more frequently and differently.
In particular she believes better use could be made of public health nurses who could assist on health, language and bonding techniques especially since the Growing Up in Ireland Report 2011 showed it is the under 3’s who are most in danger of being smacked.
So far nobody has been taken to court for ‘just smacking’ a child in Ireland.
The gardaí can use their discretion on whether to proceed further.
If a child is subject to physical punishment, “and there are reasonable grounds to suspect it is abusive” Child and Family Agency, Tusla says incidents can also be reported to them.
According to the Children’s Rights Alliance feedback from other European countries is that it’s the more serious abuses which are usually prosecuted.
“The reason why the law was changed was to change attitudes, people will respect the law and in other countries it is shown public support tends to increase with time,” says Ms Ward International literature on smacking shows that it reduces children’s self-esteem and can even cause unwanted behaviour to escalate.
Heino Schonfeld, Early Years Development Manager at Barnardos says he understands a lot of Irish people may have been smacked as children and that they might ‘slip’ and smack their own child, that most of these slips are due to, ‘parental stress’ but it doesn’t mean that he can ever accept smacking and that parents need to understand smacking is now illegal.
He agrees that the majority of parents are probably unaware of the legal change and that we need to now do a public information campaign where children are also informed.
“I think in Irish politics and in Irish public administration and policy there’s a reluctance to interfere in the family, it’s not something that’s easily done in the country. If you compare to Sweden or Germany, legislation change like this would be followed up with information aimed at children as well.
"We should inform children that their rights have changed, that they don’t have to accept physical punishment, although this information has to come with supports for parents as well.”
I ask is there not a danger that smacking will go underground as a result of the legal change and that in the privacy of the home children might still be smacked, and even if they know the law they might be afraid to report in case parents get into trouble.
"Mr Schonfeld says, ‘in particular the most serious forms of punishment have always been hidden in the home.
"With changed attitudes smacking may be seen less in public places but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen at all,” he agrees.
In a statement, the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children confirms that children who call Childline are, “confused in relation to the law surrounding chastisement.”
The ISPCC says their support line can also receive calls from parents who, “have just smacked their child or who have considered smacking their child.
If this happens our staff respond by thanking the parent for their honesty and talking through what caused them to smack the child or consider smacking the child.
We would work through with them how they reached this particular point, about what was the triggers and bring the parent to the conclusion that smacking doesn’t work.”
A 2013 ISPCC/Behaviour and Attitudes study showed parents were confused about the law even before the recent changes as 62% of parents thought in 2013 it was already illegal to smack a child.
“Anything that helps with public education will always be a good thing but the change in the law has to come with investment in prevention and early intervention services, parents need information and support on alternatives to smacking,” says CEO of the ISPCC Ms Grainia Long.
Sheila O’Malley of Practical Parenting, Dublin, says that kinder alternatives don’t always come naturally to parents though.
“Shouting is the new smacking. It’s rare now to see a child smacked in public, but shouting and ‘losing it’ is common. I don’t think people realise how harmful shouting is.”
Sheila says when a parent’s shouting they’re really shouting for help.
“You need to be the calm you want to see; you need to set the tone in your home, if you scream everybody else needs to scream to be heard. Even in a small space parents can walk the room and breathe, it can be an activity that kids can join in to calm down collectively.”
Sheila says, she’s a big believer in parents keeping their, ‘cup full’ and not doing anything that leads to unnecessary stress.
“For example big family days out can be stressful, maybe everyone would be happier pottering around the garden or going for a walk?” she says.
Practicalparenting.ie offers 1-to- 1 parent support , parenting talks and courses. www.barnardos.ie keeps a database on parenting courses around the country and have free parenting publications, Tusla offer parenting advice on www.parenting247.ie.
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