DEBATE: Should smacking be banned outright?

Rita de Brún and Ellie O’Byrne give their opinions on banning smacking in Ireland. Have your say in our poll. 

Yes: No question, it’s never OK

Rita de Brún says parents’ rage is no excuse for inflicting violence and terror on children

THE ruling by the Council of Europe found Ireland is in breach of the European Social Charter because corporal punishment of children is not prohibited in a sufficiently clear, binding and precise manner under Irish legislation or case-law.

The finding endorses the universal truth that slapping, beating or physically wounding a small, vulnerable being is entirely indefensible in all circumstances.

The finding should be a catalyst for positive legislative change that will go some way towards protecting children from violence in the home and in residential, foster and other care settings.

Despite the fact that 73% of those in a recent ISPCC survey said slapping was not an effective way to discipline a child, Irish parents still do it.

Some who do have been charged under the Children’s Act with child cruelty. In one recent case, children were allegedly slapped, punched, choked and dragged by the hair by a parent. In another, wooden spoons, iPhone cords, and kitchen implements were used to hurt and terrify helpless kids.

Irish parents taken to court for hitting their children can plead the common law right to use reasonable and moderate chastisement when disciplining their children. The sooner this outdated law is repealed and a zero-tolerance approach adapted the better for everyone, because slapping children is not just a human rights issue it’s a child protection issue.

While a legal ban will lift Ireland out of the darkness, we still have a long way to go in the battle to protect our young and we need to look to the legislators for positive change, not to Rome. At a homily in St Peter’s Square, the Pontiff quoted a father who said that while he smacks his children he never hits them in the face “so as not to humiliate them”.

”How beautiful,” said the Pontiff. “He knows the sense of dignity. He has to punish them but does it justly and moves on.”

The UN had a more positive approach. In 2006, its committee on the rights of the child issued a directive calling physical punishment “legalised violence against children” that should be eliminated in all settings through “legislative, administrative, social, and educational measures.”

A government minister speaking in the Dáil in 2013 said: “There is a balance to be found between supporting parents in effective parenting, in particular, in use of non-violent forms of discipline, and the use of criminal law to impose criminal sanctions on parents who do not adhere to best practice in parenting.”

We need to go further. There should be no slapping of and no violence directed at children at all.

What is needed is a clear statement that assaulting children is never OK, that it will not be tolerated in Ireland and that legislation will be introduced without delay to protect the children of Ireland.

That, along with the speedy introduction of that legislation, is what is required from our leadership, not namby-pambying to parents fearful that their thuggery will land them in court.

There should be no debate as to whether it’s ever OK to assault a child. Because it is never OK.

Not just because the damage it causes goes way beyond the physical, or because it’s one of the lowest forms of abuse known to man, or because it’s an abject betrayal of some of the most vulnerable among us. It’s simpler than that. Slapping a child is always, without exception inherently wrong.

While parents say they smack out of frustration, that’s only half of the truth. The other half is that they do it because they can, because they have the power to do it and because little people and minors in general have neither the physical nor emotional capacity to defend themselves from physical abuse meted out by enraged parents.

Rage comes into it. Lashing out is just the last stage in the rage game. So before the physical pain comes the fear, the knowing that the out-of-control parent is going to attack, hurt and wound, not just physically but emotionally. And inflicting that knowledge on a child, that acceptance that this ugly deed is in the process of happening is a betrayal — nothing less.

Do we want people to slap their kids? Of course not. Is it a good thing that we are being forced to change our laws to better protect kids from physical abuse? Of course it is.

We have a duty to defend our children. But we needn’t sit back on our laurels when the new legislation comes in. According to an ISPCC survey carried out in 2013, 3 in 5 of those polled wrongly believed it illegal to slap kids in Ireland. Despite that erroneous belief, 2 out of 3 admitted to having done just that.

As a child protection tool, the forthcoming change to our legislation is not only welcome but required and long overdue. But legislation alone will not protect the children of Ireland.

An abhorrence and intolerance of violence against children has to happen in the minds of parents and indeed everyone with access to children. If our children are to be safe that is what has to happen.

Because nastiness of this deeply offensive and insidious type usually takes place in private and sadly, that’s a dark nasty little secret that plays out all too often in homes all across the country.

Ellie O’Byrne says proper educational support for parents is what is really needed, not a ban

SMACKING a child is often the last, desperate measure of a stressed-out parent.

It’s neither good nor effective, but criminalising mothers and fathers for bad parenting on the basis of a ruling handed down by the EU is not the answer.

The Council of Europe’s ruling that Ireland’s laws on smacking children are in breach of the European Social Charter came about because a UK charity — the Association for the Protection of All Children — lodged formal complaints against all Council of Europe members who haven’t implemented a full ban on corporal punishment.

The charity’s official representative, Peter Newell, in welcoming the ruling, said the charity’s motive was to promote equality in law between children and adults.

Yet children and adults have different rights; this is an unavoidable fact. Children may increasingly have rights to advocacy but they don’t have the right to vote, for example, or to make certain medical choices for themselves.

Children are made wards of court in certain situations because we recognise they are not capable of making all of their own decisions. To claim that full equality in law is ever possible between children and adults is to deny basic facts about differences between adults and children.

This issue is understandably an emotive one for many. Historically, Ireland’s record when it comes to children’s care is reprehensible; even comment threads debating the Council of Europe ruling are full of the stereotype of the Irish mammy, wooden spoon in hand.

Some are joking, but others recognise that this style of parenting — often arising from big families left in the care of one temper-frayed, overworked adult 24 hours a day — is a form of abuse and very damaging.

Debate over where on a child’s body it is and isn’t “OK” to smack is particularly upsetting. The answer is simple; it’s not.

If you’ve smacked your child, you’ve made a mistake. However, parenting mistakes are common; 11% of mothers of Irish 9-year-olds reported smacking their child “now and again” in the Growing Up In Ireland 2009 study.

Parents who want to learn and grow from their mistakes won’t be helped by feeling not only guilty about their parenting abilities, but also being criminally liable — it may lead to parents not seeking advice and support to improve their parenting.

A smack doesn’t replace good communication and clear, calm parental decisions. Parents prepare their children for society and teach them some of the rules that they will apply in school and in the wider world, and this includes developing methods for letting the child know when their behaviour is not acceptable.

Currently, there’s little in the way of educational support for parents who are struggling to discipline their children. The ISPCC (who also advocate a smacking ban) recognise that “comprehensive, quality support and education of parents is essential in actively discouraging slapping and promoting positive, non-violent forms of discipline”.

A survey conducted for the ISPCC and the Children’s Rights Alliance last year revealed that two thirds of adults believe there isn’t enough information available on alternative methods of discipline to parents.

The common law right of parents to use “reasonable and moderate chastisement” in disciplining children has existed since the Children Act of 1908.

Currently, if someone witnesses a parent slapping a child, they are free to report an assault to the gardaí and the incident will be investigated. If a case is taken, a parent can defend smacking their children in court as “reasonable chastisement”.

So do we trust that a judge’s ruling will reflect changing Irish attitudes in what constitutes reasonable chastisement, or do we remove all discretion and effectively criminalise any parent who smacks?

There are claims that you could “ban” smacking without criminalising it, but making it illegal would require some kind of legal sanction in place to uphold the ban. It’s important to note that Irish criminal law already protects children from serious violence within the home.

Very few people would now advocate corporal punishment of the kind meted out against previous generations of Irish children. Breaking the cycle of violence perpetuated by the Church, State, and family has been a struggle for many, and we’re making progress.

It’s a positive thing that our attitudes are changing, but this evolution should be based on support and parenting resources extended to struggling parents, not with threats; by doing so, EU policy will be “parenting” the parents in exactly the way they are advocating against.

Michel Foucault recognised the threat of incarceration as a form of violence against the individual. The end goal as a parent is to raise an adult who will exhibit self-discipline, good communication, and powers of reason.

You hope that, after years of learning and trial and error, your child will internalise these habits and not need to rely on external threats and coercions to keep them on the straight and narrow. As adults, we should expect that our social institutions will treat us the same way.


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