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

'I was slapped as a child at primary school. I wasn't permanently scarred, but didn't walk away unscathed'illustration: Getty Images

Wed, Feb 6, 2013, 00:00

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.

If anyone broke down and cried – more in shock and humiliation than pain – they would be told off for “pussing and bawling and stupid carry on”. We were six years old.

I wasn’t permanently scarred by the experience, but I wouldn’t say I walked away entirely unscathed. My abiding memory of that period in my life is the constant state of anxiety I felt on Sunday evenings; the strategy I developed of saying nothing in class, rather than risking the wrong answer.

Slapping children has been banned in Irish schools for more than 30 years and became illegal in 1996, but parents are not prohibited from doing it, so long as their “chastisement” is “reasonable” and “moderate”.

Now there’s an oxymoron. Violence is never reasonable, just as it is never for the benefit of the person on the receiving end. Nobody could reasonably argue that hitting their partner is “for her (or his) own good”. We don’t think it’s okay to hit cats, or dogs, or horses. So why, as a society, do we still believe it’s alright for parents to hit their children?

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald announced more than a year ago that she she would look at whether there was a need for a blanket ban on parents slapping their children. This came six years after the Council of Europe’s European Committee of Social Rights ruled that Ireland was breaching its international human-rights obligations by failing to introduce such a ban.

Since then, the Children’s Rights Referendum has come and gone, and there has been little further mention of it. Asked about it in the Dáil in December, the Minister admitted that Ireland was in breach of the European Social Charter. However, she said that progress had been made in “encouraging parents to use alternative non-violent forms of discipline”, and that research by her department indicated that corporal punishment in the home was “relatively rare”.

A spokeswoman pointed out this week that there are “very clear legal deterrents” to the use of excessive physical discipline in the home.

This week, as a society, we have been left reeling again by our collective failure to protect our most vulnerable citizens. One of the most troubling aspects of the McAleese Report is the reminder that the last Magdalene Laundry only closed down in 1996 – the year we were all busy cheering Michelle Smith on at the Atlanta Olympics, and grappling with the deaths of Jerry McCabe and Veronica Guerin. It is still hard to believe that, in such recent memory, this society was guilty of such institutionalised cruelty.

And yet, as a State, we continue to endorse routine, low-level physical force as a way of keeping children in line.

I don’t much want the State interfering in how parents choose to bring up their children. I don’t particularly want to criminalise the mother who administered a light punch on her son’s shoulder to keep him away from the Pick and Mix.

But we have to start somewhere. If we don’t try to keep every child safe in their home, how can we possibly expect to protect them anywhere else?

Lipstick on the cover: Sylvia Plath's makeover

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a modern classic: a dark, witty, semi-autobiographical account of young magazine intern Esther Greenwood’s descent into clinical depression, which was exacerbated by what she felt were society’s suffocating expectations of women like her. The book was published shortly before Plath’s own suicide.

It has just been republished by Faber for its 50th anniversary. Gone is the striking graphic cover, designed by Shirley Tucker, featuring concentric circles on a grey background. In what may be a failure of irony on the part of the publishers or a stroke of commercial genius, the new cover features a stock image of a 1950s housewife admiring herself in a powder compact, set against a raspberry background.

Has the reading public dumbed down that much? Or is it just that books by “lady novelists” don’t sell unless they’ve got a pink cover? Unfortunately, the sales of the new version would suggest as much. According to Faber, the new chicklit-friendly Plath is selling by the truckload.

Hands off our 'killer' cats

A study published in the journal Nature has found that “harmless” household moggies may be killing two to four times more animals than previously thought. It says cats kill an average of 2.4 billion birds and 12.3 billion small mammals a year.

It is studies like this that have prompted a campaign by New Zealander Gareth Morgan to ban domestic cats in his home country. His proposal involves neutering all the country’s cats, then convincing others not to buy or breed replacements.

“If you’re a cat owner reading this, you are probably thinking that the above statistics don’t apply to your cat,” Morgan wrote on his site, which claims domestic cats in New Zealand have killed off nine species entirely, and endangered another 33.

He argues that the average cat brings home 13 “gifts” a year, and eats the rest. “The fact is that your furry friend is actually a friendly neighbourhood serial killer.”

I wonder where I’m going wrong with my loveable four-year-old rescue cat. In the past, she has happily co-habited with a mouse and even shared her grub with it. She regularly brings us gifts in the middle of the night – small stuffed animals she rescues from the playroom. She is hardly the feline equivalent of Fred West. I’m inclined to think we should calm down and let nature take care of itself.

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