Anne Houston: There’s no justification for hitting our children
IS IT ever okay to assault another person? It used to be that the law allowed for the beating of women and servants, but we now recognise that such attitudes are outmoded and that we need laws in place to protect against such assaults.
Yet, in 2003, Scotland legislated to allow for the assault of children. Hitting children on the head or with implements and shaking them was outlawed. But hitting children and young people can be justified, depending on the child’s age, the circumstances and the severity. Can you imagine our parliament passing a law that says assault on any other vulnerable individual – older or disabled people, say – is “justified”?
Neither can we. But that’s exactly what we have in this country in relation to children, who don’t have the same rights to protection from assault that we, as adults, enjoy. Indeed, physical punishment is the only form of violence in the home – because that is what hitting children is – which we do not protect against.
What constitutes reasonable and justified punishment is entirely subjective and determined largely by adults’ views, rather than children’s. At CHILDREN 1ST, we support children to help them recover from abuse and trauma: they often talk about being slapped or hit and how the bruises fade, but the humiliation and anxiety do not. Their reaction shows how blurry the boundaries are and that people will often hit harder than intended in the heat of the moment. We know too, from calls to our helpline ParentLine Scotland, that parents who resort to physical punishment often feel guilty afterwards.
Yet, allowing for any form of physical punishment of children and young people is in fact breaching children’s human rights, enshrined in the United Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). It also puts us in breach of our obligations under the European Social Charter. The UK – and Scotland as a nation within the UK – has signed up to both of these treaties and we have been criticised by many international bodies – the United Nations committee on the rights of the child, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Committee of Social Rights – for our failure to provide children with equal protection under the law.
Indeed, the UK is now one of only four countries in Europe not to have implemented or intending to implement a ban on physical punishment. And while other countries move forward on this issue, here in Scotland, we seem reluctant to recognise that things have moved on.
Research shows a shift in attitudes: a survey conducted in 2010 found that barely a third of parents used smacking as a way of disciplining their children. Other methods of parenting are more effective and most parents now recognise this.
International research shows that education around positive parenting works best when accompanied by a definitive legal position. When countries which do not allow physical punishment were compared with those that do, it showed that half measures – like Scotland’s – do not work because they confuse parents and professionals. What does work to change behaviour is outlawing physical punishment at the same time as public education and awareness-raising.
For in the 19 European countries which have already taken this step, there haven’t been mass arrests of parents, nor has there been an upswing in the number of children hurt because they ran into traffic or burned their hands in fires without someone to warn them off it with a slap.
There is no merit in criminalising parents. Taking trivial assaults to court is a waste of police time and would not be in the public interest. It hasn’t happened in other countries which removed the right of parents to smack their children and it wouldn’t happen here.
The purpose of all good law is to prevent crime – in this case preventing violence and assaults against children – and to change attitudes and behaviour. Just look at the impact the laws around seat belts, drink driving and smoking in public places have had.
Valuing children and what they bring to our society is key to changing how we treat them. The Scottish Government has said that it wants “Scotland to be the best place in the world for children to grow up”. Giving children equal protection under the law and declaring that it is never justified to assault a child would be an important start.
• Anne Houston is the chief executive of CHILDREN 1ST, formerly known as RSSPCC, working in Scotland for over 125 years for vulnerable children and young people