06:17, March 26 58 0 theguardian.com

2019-03-26 06:17:04
Wales is right to ban smacking. But it’s not the whole solution

When you’ve been awake since dawn, you haven’t spoken to another adult for six hours, you’re having your first period in two years and your baby is refusing to go to sleep despite having been awake since 4.22am, there is a very fine line between playfully flicking bits of sheepskin out of your child’s hand before they eat it, and just hitting your child.

I know, because a few months ago I found myself alone, in a park, bathed in golden springtime sunshine, genuinely worried that I was about to hit my son. This was not some theoretical musing about the nature of “reasonable force” but the frayed-nerve feeling of a parent reaching the very end of their ability to cope. Had I grown up in an environment where smacking had been part of my family’s emotional language, if I’d been smacked as a child and lived to tell the tale, if slapping, smacking, pinching or hitting children had been considered normal during my childhood, then I might very well have smacked my own child that day. Luckily, very luckily, I was able to walk into a nearby children’s centre, plonk him by a miniature sandpit full of plastic dinosaurs, watch him wave cheerfully to the play worker laying out a rainbow of jumbo felt tip pens, walk into the corner, out of sight, and let out all the fury and fatigue that had been welling up inside me all day in one huge sigh.

On Monday, the Welsh government introduced the children (Wales) bill that will ban parents from physically punishing children, although it will be up to citizens to report incidents, and for the police and Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether to prosecute. This change in the law will get rid of the old “reasonable punishment” defence (something that dates back to the Victorian era) and bring parents under the same legal restrictions as schools and other educational settings. Julie Morgan, the deputy minister for health and social services, said: “We are sending a clear message that the physical punishment of children is not acceptable in Wales.”

Good for Wales, I say, and I’d welcome it here in England.

But a new law on its own will never be enough. It might be comforting to imagine that only “bad people” hit children. But the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of good people want to do bad things when under unbearable stress. Since becoming a parent nearly a year and a half ago, I have discovered with horror how close to the surface lies the impulse to smack a chubby hand away from a burning hob, to lash out after having your nipple bitten, to react unthinkingly when you’ve just been scratched across the eye. I have been surprised to find that it can also feel completely pointless to verbally warn, reprimand or reason with a child who, as far as you can tell, has no verbal understanding whatsoever. Let me be absolutely clear: I think using physical force against a child is wrong. In every instance. But I also have a newfound understanding of how it can happen.

Kids are designed to push you to the very limits of your capacity. They do so to find your boundaries, test your edges and more tightly weave the bond between you. They need to know that you love them unconditionally. But more importantly than that, I now realise that, particularly before they can speak, they need to evoke their own anger, sadness, fear and pain in you in order that you can attend to them sympathetically. When they’re teething, they bite you. When they’re scared, they scream at you. When they’re tired, they whinge incessantly. You hurt because they hurt. You’re upset because they’re upset. Hitting a child when they’re in that state will do absolutely nothing to solve their problem but could well open a door to something that seriously damages you both.

So we must also combine systems of legal redress with more funding for children’s centres, social workers, the NHS, schools and family services, so parents can be helped, educated and supported in parenting better. You need play workers and teachers to show you how to de-escalate an argument and communicate successfully with children. You need other children to show your child not to scream in people’s faces or jump off walls. You need other parents to model new coping strategies and listen to your problems. You need social workers, midwives, doctors and health visitors to spot the warning signs for postnatal depression, anxiety, psychosis and all the other mental illnesses that can affect parents.

As our government continues to cripple health and social services with funding cuts and privatisation, all those essentials are becoming harder to access and are stretched to breaking point. Over 1,000 children’s centres have been forced to close since 2010, health visitor numbers are at their lowest since 2013, 91% of schools face pupil funding cuts and the National Health Service is halfway through a decade of record underfunding. In that environment it is becoming harder for everyone, but particularly parents who cannot afford private childcare (which is a lot of us), to cope. Without the pressure valve of a playgroup, children’s centre, nursery or school, it is unreasonable to expect parents to manage all the stress, worry, loneliness and physical demands of parenting, all the time, without something, occasionally, going wrong.

Punishing parents for punishing children is not a solution in itself. But making physical force illegal and therefore socially unacceptable, while simultaneously supporting vulnerable parents, will make a difference. A big one. Doing that will take investment, insight and intelligence. The question is, can the current UK government be relied on for any of the three?

Nell Frizzell is a columnist and writer

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