Will a ban on slapping children leave parents legally exposed?

A BAN on the slapping of children could result in ‘draconian penalties’ for parents, because some judges could impose the law with more rigour than others, a family law specialist has warned.

Will a ban on slapping children leave parents legally exposed?

However, Cork-based expert Anne O’Neill said that there’s no basis for not banning the practice.

“It seems to me that when we signed up to the EU, we signed up to the charter of human rights, and Article 17 of that charter prohibits all corporal punishment, and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment of children.

“We’re in breach of that as we stand,” she said, adding that when corporal punishment was banned in schools, the need to do so had been accepted.

However, O’Neill said she was concerned that in the wake of such a ban parents who were not abusers could be prosecuted.

She also spoke of the potential for “righteous individuals” to feel empowered to report caring parents who may have been simply under stress when they slapped a child.

“They may be misguided, or put to the pin of their collar. I would be concerned that certain judges would impose the law with more rigour than others.

“Anything left to the discretion of individual judges could result in a lot of parents being subjected to rather draconian penalties,” she said.

“Where I see the problem is how the law would be implemented.

“I wouldn’t want to see ordinary, reasonable parents who have been put to the pin of their collar going to prison — or the empowering of righteous individual to report people,” she said.

O’Neill said that a strong education programme needed to be put in place before any ban was implemented.

“There has been a systematic change in attitudes to corporal punishment over the years, but if you impose a ban when there are still a lot of people who don’t understand or agree with it, you’re are asking for trouble,” she said.

“You’re effectively criminalising ordinary, stressed or misguided parents.”

O’Neill was speaking in regard to a new survey by the ISPCC and the Children’s Rights Alliance, which shows that 57% of adults would support a ban on slapping.

The two organisations are calling for an outright ban on slapping children and the implementation of a large-scale positive-parenting campaign.

However, ISPCC regional manager, Tracey Monson, who launched the survey, said she believed the ban should come first.

“We feel the ban needs to come first, backed by a positive-parenting campaign,” she said, adding that the parenting campaign needed to raise public awareness about the “dangers of slapping and the alternatives”.

“This is not about criminalising parents, it’s about valuing and respecting children,” Monson said, adding that in other countries where slapping had been banned, there had not been “a huge surge of cases where parents have been criminalised”.

Monson said the number of parents who reported slapping their child had risen from 25%, in a 2009 report by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, to 41% in this latest report.

“We would see, very clearly, that in the absence of alternatives, parents do slap,” she said.

“Slapping is not going to teach a child anything. I think it’s a very last-resort case, but we do understand why parents do it — because they are frustrated and they feel they have no alternative,” she said, adding the end result is a parent who feels guilty and a child who feels wronged.

Survey highlights information gap

The key findings from a survey on attitudes towards child discipline carried out by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) and the Children’s Rights Alliance are:

¦ More than three in five adults believe it is illegal to slap a child.

¦ 73% of adults do not view slapping as an effective way to discipline a child.

¦ Two in five have slapped a child to discipline them, 1% saying they do it often.

¦ Almost three in five adults support a complete ban on slapping children.

¦ Two thirds of adults believe that there is not enough information available to parents relating to alternative methods of discipline.

Alternative approaches

According to ISPCC research, 73% of parents believe slapping in an ineffective form of discipline. Here are some alternatives:

Age two: Remember, temper tantrums are a developmental phase for children. Often they won’t have the language to describe how they’re feeling, explains Monson, so they communicate their frustration and their needs through physical ways.

“The child is not doing this because they want to annoy you,” she says, adding that when parents slap, it can be out of sheer frustration. Her advice is to identify triggers, for example, sweets on display during the weekly supermarket trip, and pre-empt them.

Be aware of what the child’s triggers are, and distract him or her. In a supermarket for instance, involve the child in the shopping — even let them push around a child-sized trolley. “We see a lot of parents in supermarkets and they’re absolutely mortified.”

But all you can do when a tantrum hits is ensure the child is safe, and wait. “Stand back and let the storm blow over,” she says.

Age five: Use ‘time out’ or withdrawal of privileges. Always implement a strategy that highlights the consequences of their actions and involves them in taking responsibility for their decisions. “Set boundaries clearly and stick to them. Always communicate with children,” advises Monson.

Age 10: Withdrawal of privileges, for example their phone, and a clear explanation of why the object was confiscated. Give children time and space to calm down, and take the time to debrief them so that they understand the consequences of their actions.

Pre-teens: This is a difficult time, full of change, says Monson. Listen to your child and look for triggers to certain behaviours, she says. The withdrawal of privileges is often a good strategy here also, but discussion must take place about the links between action and consequences.

Teenagers: Be very clear around boundaries. Grounding may work, suggests Monson. However, individual parents will know what works best with their children — the secret is to stick to it. It’s important to communicate with your child, and to bring them on board by discussing the issues, she says.

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