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Debate: Ban on spanking children

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Should there be an outright ban on the smacking or spanking of children?

Background and context

In most common law countries any common assault (that is deliberate or reckless physical contact without consent) is illegal. There are however a series of exceptions to that proposition where the public interest is deemed to justify allowing such assaults. One of the most used is ‘lawful chastisement.’ In most cases it is legitimate to strike children for that purpose where it would not be acceptable to strike an adult. The law varies from country to country as to what is an acceptable level of force but very few countries (Germany a notable exception) have an outright ban on parents using such force. The debate turns less on the moral principle behind the legitimacy of smacking per se and more on the effects on the ability to police child abuse with and without a ban. For wider discussion of corporal punishment, including in schools and of adults, see separate Debatabase entries.

Contents

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Abuse: Will a ban on smacking stop child abuse?

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Yes

Only an outright ban on smacking will enhance child protection. The number of children reporting being beaten to the point of bruising in Germany has declined from 3 in 10 to 3 in 100 since 1992 after a ban was introduced in Germany. A culture that tolerates smacking makes it easier to conceal graver abuse. Frequently, incidents of abuse reported by children are not investigated, or the cases abandoned as the abuse is written off as a case of “legitimate punishment”. A total ban enables child protection workers to give the parents of children at risk of abuse a clear message that no level of corporal punishment is acceptable. A parent who still continues to smack their child would no longer be able to hide behind the defence of “reasonable chastisement”. In European countries with a longstanding smacking ban, there has been an increase in the early detection of children at risk, and a decrease in the proportion of parents who are subsequently prosecuted.

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No

It will do nothing to tackle real cases of child abuse. A ban on smacking will do nothing to tackle cases of real abuse, but will bring thousands of well-intentioned parents into the justice system. In 2003 84 per cent of the 170, 000 child abuse reports were found to have no substantive basis, with the majority being false accusations made for mistaken, mischievous or malicious reasons. Consequently 150,000 children and their families had to endure the intrusive invasions by investigators, resulting in serious and long-term harm to their emotional and social well-being. If incidents of smacking are treated as child protection matters then parents will be subject to investigations on a far wider scale. Our already overburdened social services department will have even less time and resources to devote to uncovering real cases of abuse.

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Rights: Do children have the same rights as adults?

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Yes

Children deserve the same rights as everyone else. Children should receive the same legal protection from violence as adults. It is wrong that parents can deliberately inflict pain to the extent that if inflicted on an adult it would justify prosecution. In a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, children are the most vulnerable members of society, yet the only group which can be legally assaulted.

You cannot legally smack an adult. If smacking an adult would see you charged with assult, why is it okay to smack children?

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No

Children deserve rights but smacking can be justified. Parents are responsible for caring for their children and physical correction is legitimate in the context of a loving family environment. Physical force without consent is not automatically wrong with adults or children but is allowed in those circumstances where there is good reason. Discipline and respect for the choices and judgment of parents are a good justification.

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Harm: Is smacking harmful for children?

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Yes

Smacking can cause lasting psychological damage. Smacking, however occasional, is harmful to children. As well as causing physical pain there are lasting psychological effects. It is widely recognised that smacking undermines children’s confidence, weakens their emotional relationships and encourages the use of violence to resolve disputes with siblings and classmates. The experience of childhood smacking has even been linked with an increased risk of alcoholism, depression, masochistic fantasy and suicidal ideation in adult life.

Smacking is usually painful. Smacking to the point of pain and bruising is totally wrong and unacceptable. Most children don't deserve this punishment.

If a child is being smacked, that is not exactly a loving family environment. The 'no' side of this argument says that it is okay to smack children in the context of a loving family environment. The environment is most of the time not 'loving' and smacking a child is not loving and caring for it. Most of the time, smacking occurs out of that context and most parents who smack their kids are not exactly "loving".

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No

A little smack is okay in the right context. Smacking is only harmful to children when it is outside the context of a stable, loving and communicative home. But in such "bad homes" a laissez faire attitude also leads to long term psychological problems from feelings of being ignored, the lack of social skills from parental interaction and a lack of firm boundaries for acceptable behaviour. Bad parenting is the problem, not smacking. Within the context of a caring and loving home, smacking of children can allow boundaries to be set without ongoing battles between parents and children that are harmful to their relationship. Smacking is a short, sharp shock and it gives clarity to the rules, which is actually a source of great security for children.

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Society: Would a ban on smacking help reduce violence in the community?

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Yes

Smacking sends the wrong message about violence. Smacking is harmful to society as normative forms of violence spill over into criminal forms. As corporal punishment is a significant factor in the development of violent behaviour in childhood and later life, an outright ban would help measures to reduce violence and crime. Banning smacking would also help to promote the concept of zero tolerance of violence between all family members and thus reduce all forms of domestic violence, as well as reducing bullying between children.

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No

The evidence for this is non-existent. There are clear correlations in a society between poverty and violence, availability of weapons and violence, widespread drug use and violence, absence of parents and violence. The assertion of a link between smacking and social violence is highly dubious given the cross-national variation between levels of violence and crime between countries with the same policies on smacking, as well as the strength of correlation with other factors. This is no more than an assertion of hippy faith.

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Discipline: Is smacking effective discipline for a child?

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Yes

Smacking is an effective form of discipline. It is unnatural for a parent to hit his or her own child. The fact that the practice is so widespread and long lasting suggests that it is an effective disciplinary method. Academic views on whether smacking is effective or not go in and out of fashion but the anecdotal evidence from millions of responsible parents never changes. There is certainly enough good evidence that smacking can be effective that we should leave parents the discretion to exercise their judgment in the best interests of their child.

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No

Smacking is an ineffective way of disciplining a child. It provides children with no incentive to behave well. Smacking only makes a child upset and doesn't teach young children anything, except that domestic violence is okay.

Children are too young to understand so smacking is pointless. Children who are too young to understand an explanation of why their behaviour is wrong are equally unlikely to be able to relate a smack to their supposed crime.

There are more effective disciplinary techniques. In Germany, where the law on smacking was modified in 2000, smacking has declined and there has been a reported rise in disciplinary methods like television bans and reduced pocket money. A ban on smacking would provide a clear legal basis for the promotion of similar positive, non-violent forms of discipline, which reduce family stress and promote polite children.

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Justification: Is smacking okay if it is justified?

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Yes

It is okay if it is justified. All systems of human rights law are qualified. The question of whether the right concerned is engaged at all relies on proving that the act is illegitimate. Further, even if the right is engaged, if it is justified for one of the many reasons written into the structure of the rights themselves it will amount to a legitimate qualification of the right and therefore will not fall foul of the relevant legislation. Finally, European Human Rights law allows a margin of discretion for national laws to take into account cultural differences and the judgment of legislators. We are perfectly entitled to make our own decisions about this issue.

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No

'The UN Rights of the Child' are against physical abuse. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires the countries to protect children from “all forms of physical and mental violence”. The Committee on the Rights of the Child, its international monitoring body for the Convention, emphasises that even physical punishment within the family is not compatible with full implementation, and has formally recommended prohibition to the UK and other countries. In 1999 the European Court of Human Rights found that the beating by a father of his stepson constituted “inhuman or degrading punishment”. The law in Britain and other countries that tolerate smacking should be brought into line with European law to ensure the respect of basic human rights.

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Prosecution: Would this lead to mass prosecution of parents with good intentions?

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Yes

If reported, lots of parents could be prosecuted. This amounts to saying that it doesn’t matter if we have a bad law because prosecutors will use their discretion to prevent it having bad effects. When we are talking about protecting people from unfair persecution by the criminal law we need to have better protection than that. Ultimately, we could say that anyone could be put in prison arbitrarily because we trust the prosecutor not to abuse it. We don’t, because our criminal law is based on the right not to be imprisoned unfairly, not the privilege.

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No

Parents would not be prosectuted for every smack, this is more of a deterrent. A ban would not lead to a mass prosecution of parents for trivial smacks, any more than adults are prosecuted for trivial assaults on other adults currently. The threat of punishment is likely to function as a deterrent and change parents' behaviour. Moreover, there would be less intervention into family life by social workers than there is now. The current law in the UK makes lawyers and prosecutors responsible for deciding if a smack hurt and thus for fine-tuning levels of acceptable violence in the home.

See also

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