Stop conflating smacking with violent assault

Spiked 30 December 2013 
Given some of the guff anti-smacking campaigners and quangocrats have emitted recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that there is no legal provision to stop adults from beating the bejesus out of children.

Take England’s children’s commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, who was clearly eager to show off her grasp of jurisprudence in last Saturday’s Independent. ‘In law you are forbidden from striking another adult, and from physically chastising your pets, but somehow there is a loophole around the fact that you can physically chastise your child. It’s counter-evidential’, she said. Never slow to turn up, big spoon in hand, when the stinking pot of parental suspicion is being stirred, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was quick to agree with Atkinson, stating: ‘Children should have the same rights as adults in law to be protected from physical assaults.’

Funnily enough, I agree that children should be legally entitled to the same protections from physical assault as adults. In fact, aside from the determinedly sociopathic, I reckon every member of society would like to see all forms of grievous bodily harm inflicted on children outlawed. Violence towards kids is not generally considered socially acceptable. Which is why it’s not particularly surprising to discover that beating up children is in fact already illegal. Yep, that’s right: if you punch a three-year-old in the face, you will face charges.

So why, given that assaulting toddlers is indeed prohibited under English law, are Atkinson, the NSPCC and assorted other activists talking as if it’s not? The answer lies in one of the key rhetorical strategies of the anti-smacking lobby. That is, in order to press for a ban on parents smacking children (which is legally permitted right now), the anti-smackers routinely conflate the act of smacking with an act of violence. In their eyes, there is no real distinction between delivering a smack to the bottom of a recalcitrant five-year-old and beating up an old-age pensioner – they’re seen as part of the same continuum of violent behaviour. As a result, a critic of smacking can come up with the following gobsmacking logic: ‘[When a man] punches a woman for her handbag, [he] is called a mugger; but when he becomes a father and hits his tiresome, disobedient or disrespectful child, we call him a disciplinarian.’