Parents who smack children ‘without meaning to hurt them’ should not be punished, say sentencing chiefs

By Steve Doughty

Senior judges are expected to demand leniency for parents brought to court for smacking children too hard.

If they do not intend to cause physical harm, they should be given only light penalties and should not be jailed, advice for the courts is likely to say today.

The recommendations will make Labour’s laws on smacking children effectively unworkable.

They will also infuriate the powerful lobby which wants to see corporal punishment made a serious crime, routinely bringing prison sentences for parents.

Rules for the courts are to be published by the Sentencing Guidelines Council, the body headed by Lord Chief Justice Lord Phillips which sets down rules for judges and magistrates.

The council has already suggested that parents who do not mean to harm their children should never be jailed.

Until four years ago parents had full rights to use corporal punishment under laws dating from the 1860s, which allowed the defence of “reasonable chastisement”.

But in 2004 Labour’s Children Act removed that defence from parents who cause injury to their children.

Injuries which can now bring an assault charge to a mother or father can be as slight as a bruise, reddening of the skin, or “psychological” harm.

However, in consultation papers produced last year, the council said the courts should continue to give great weight to the “reasonable chastisement” doctrine.

It said then that if there is no intention to cause injury, this should be seen as “substantial mitigation”.

It recommended: “Such a finding of fact should result in a substantial reduction in sentence and should not result in a custodial sentence.

“Where not only was the injury neither intended nor foreseen, but was not even reasonably foreseeable, then a discharge might be appropriate.”

The 2004 compromise law on smacking has failed to satisfy the lobby group pushing for physical punishment of children to be outlawed.

A group of Labour MPs is trying to gather support in the Commons.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has said smacking is supported by a big majority of parents and has promised that there will be no ban.


© 2008 Associated New Media


Corpun file 20512


Daily Telegraph, London, 21 February 2008

Why smacking is a hit again

Once it was taboo. But parents are no longer dismissing corporal punishment out of hand, says Lesley Thomas

At lunch recently, a father of four who works in publishing told me he occasionally gives his children ”a clip around the ear”. The threat of minor violence, he said, was the fastest way to get his brood into the people carrier if they were all to get out of the house on time. It wasn’t so much the fact that this otherwise modern thirtysomething father would slap his children that shocked me, but the fact that he spoke about it so openly. A decade ago, he might have been worried that I’d call social services – or at least recommend an anger management course.

Man smacking child
The bottom line: experts disagree on discipline, but lashing out can make a parent feel horribly guilty

In the 21st century, however, discipline is in. Thanks in part to the rise of television programmes about parenting, such as Supernanny and House of Tiny Tearaways, naughty steps, finishing what’s on your plate and strict bedtime routines are back in vogue. And yesterday the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which sets down rules for magistrates and judges, called for leniency in sentencing parents who are brought to court for smacking their children – a sea change in attitudes from just four years ago, when the right to a defence of “reasonable chastisement” was removed under the Children Act.

As a mother of two, I know how testing small children can be. The closest I came to lashing out was when one of mine almost ran into a busy road. I stopped her just in time, but I was so lost for words, so horrified at what might have happened that a smack felt almost natural – the only language either of us might have understood.

Although I stopped myself before the message transmitted from brain to back of hand, because I feel slapping is a lazy form of discipline, I couldn’t promise I would never lash out. So when friends confess, as many have, that they have hit their children, I find it impossible to be too judgmental.

My generation grew up in a culture in which smacking children was commonplace. Talking to friends, it is clear that they all remember, in vivid detail, when they were smacked. My primary school in the 1970s offered the slipper – in front of the school – or the cane for the very naughty.

Now those days are back – for some families, at least. Smacking is no longer taboo. Yesterday, on, the popular parenting website, whether or not to smack your child was the hottest of topics. “I don’t, because I don’t like it or find it a necessary way to discipline my children,” said one mother. “But others find it effective and don’t have a problem with it.”

Said another: “I have smacked my son twice and he is four. Both times it was for something quite serious. I have threatened a smack when I have been tired or ill, but not followed through.”

Another exhausted mother explained: “I smacked my seven-year-old disabled child when he was trying to gouge out his father’s eyes, quite deliberately… My husband was strapping him into the car and couldn’t defend himself. Violence with violence. Not great. But I did it.”

Justine Roberts, co-founder of the site, says women are becoming more open about their anger towards their children: “A few people are saying [smacking] is a strategy for managing their children and it’s the only effective one they’ve found. But most admit they’ve done it once or twice in anger but feel awful about it. There’s a huge amount of sympathy for parents who are being pushed to the limit.”

None of my friends needed any persuasion to off-load a little guilt about parental crimes. One, a 37-year-old marketing director, said. “It was three years ago when my daughter was two and I have never, ever forgotten it.

“We were with my husband’s family and we’d had a taxing day on the beach. My daughter was hot and sandy and exhausted and so was I. I was trying to change her nappy and she just would not stop wriggling. Suddenly I lashed out and whacked her on the leg. She was stunned and just froze. She stared at me and all I could see was that she had been humiliated and betrayed. I felt sick and then cuddled her and said sorry. I’m ashamed to admit that I said: ‘Please don’t tell Daddy’.”

Another, a 40-year-old novelist, told me: “One afternoon after school I held on to my 10-year-old and just shook him. I felt very stressed about work and my relationship, and he had broken an expensive toy. I felt terrible afterwards, apologised and promised to myself never to do it again. I think it’s really bad parenting to hit children.”

While some parents may be more relaxed about corporal punishment, Elizabeth Hartley Brewer, an expert in child development and parenting, believes that such attitudes must be resisted. “Children can’t defend themselves verbally or physically,” she says.

“Psychologically, smacking can do them enormous harm. And it’s a lazy way to look after children. Physical punishment can delay and confuse moral development and does nothing to preserve their self-respect. When I’ve talked to children who’ve been hit, every one of them can remember when it happened. When my daughter was about two, I lashed out about something and I regret it enormously. She was totally let down by me and burst into tears.”

Those who have never lost their cool and hit out should not be feeling smug, however. There are, Hartley Brewer admits, worse forms of punishment for children. “Some of those horrible TV programmes have made people proud of disciplining their children, regardless of how they do it,” she says. “I’ve met people who don’t hit but think it’s perfectly OK to make their child wash their mouth out with soap or even eat their lunch naked as a punishment. As for the naughty step, that can be just as damaging as a smack if it is used to humiliate a child.”

Imperial Leather for supper hardly counts as “reasonable chastisement”. Perhaps if modern mothers knew more about such extreme parenting styles, we’d stop beating ourselves up about the occasional outburst.