You wouldn't hit a partner for their own good, so why would you hit a child?
'I was slapped as a child at primary school. I wasn't permanently scarred, but didn't walk away unscathed'illustration: Getty Images
Earlier this week, I conducted a grim little experiment. I stood in my local shopping centre and decided to wait there until I saw a parent slap or physically discipline their child.
I didn’t have to wait long. I took up my position near the Pick and Mix counter and, moments later, a mother walked past with two children. The elder child – a boy of about eight – reached for the sweets, and his mother landed a warning punch on his shoulder.
Less than two minutes after it began, my experiment was over.
I probably shouldn’t have been surprised. My study was a miniature version of one conducted by students from Sligo IT in February last year, which counted 52 children being slapped in three shopping centres in the space of an hour. Meanwhile, the Growing Up in Ireland study of nine-year-olds has found that about 11 per cent of mothers smack their children “now and again”, while another survey of 800 adults last summer found that almost one in two believes it is acceptable to slap a child.
And it’s not just Irish people or even parents – 70 per cent of American doctors in another survey said recently that they believed it was fine to slap a child on the bottom as long as it didn’t leave a mark. Last weekend, the British justice secretary Chris Grayling admitted he had slapped his children, now aged 22 and 16, and he didn’t think it did them any harm.
That’s the standard defence for slapping, isn’t it? “A light tap on the legs doesn’t count.” “Sometimes you have no choice.” “It’s for their own good.” “Some children don’t respond to anything else.” “I’m not proud of it, but I did it in the heat of the moment.” “I was more upset than they were.” “I would do it only as a last resort.” “It never did me any harm, and it won’t hurt them either.”
I don’t buy it.
I can’t claim to be a perfect parent, but I have never slapped my own children: not just because I think it is wrong, or because I’ve read enough studies to understand the long-term effects – but because I don’t believe it is an effective form of discipline.
It’s funny how many of the parents who will admit to administering “the occasional light tap”, follow up by adding: “but only if they do something really bad – like hitting”. I wonder if it ever occurs to them that there might be a connection between all the “light tapping” they’re doing, and the “hitting” their children do?
I was slapped as a child – never by my parents, thankfully, but occasionally at a convent primary school I attended for a few years. I remember the ripple of fear that would run through the classroom when our teacher – it was always the same teacher, an angry, permanently red-faced woman who would shout at us that she was “suffering from her nerves” – instructed us to stand up and hold out our hands, as she walked around and gave each of us a sharp whack with the end of a metre stick.