The Independent 5 June 2014
Whatever the intention of the promoters of the new “Cinderella Law”, its main accomplishment will be to turn the emotional landscape of family life into a dangerous battlefield.
The aim of this law is to change existing legislation on child neglect by expanding the meaning of criminal abuse to encompass the complicated domain of the emotion. The Conservative MP Robert Buckland, who is the principal Parliamentary campaigner for a law that would criminalise the emotional abuse of children, claims that without such legislation “the wicked stepmother of Cinderella” gets “away scot-free”. However, once the emotional behaviour of parents becomes a target for policing, every mother and father is at risk of being labelled an abuser.
The call for the Cinderella Law represents the latest phase of a campaign to continually expand the range of parental behaviour that can be condemned as abusive. These days, parents who smoke or drink alcohol in front of children risk being characterised as child-abusers. Opponents of the tradition of male circumcision condemn Jewish and Muslim parents as abusers of children. Health activists denounce parents of overweight children for the same offence. Mothers and fathers who educate their children to embrace the family’s religion have been characterised as child abusers by anti-faith campaigners. Precisely because the abuse of children is regarded as such a terrible crime, advocates of a variety of different causes frame their campaign in the language of child protection.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children offers a definition of emotional abuse that includes some very real and unambiguous acts of harm, such as “conveying to a child that they are worthless or unloved, inadequate”, but it also includes forms of behaviour that, depending on the context, may or may not be harmful to a child.
For example, the NSPCC includes in its definition of emotional abuse the “making of fun” of what a child says or how they communicate. I am not sure what universe the NSPCC inhabits, but in the real world, the making fun of one another is the stuff of family life. When parents and children interact, they are likely to make jokes at each others’ expense.