Bringing children’s rights into the 21st century

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Alexandra Luca

As Scotland becomes the first country in the UK to ban child smacking, is this a step in the right direction?

As many will be aware by now, Scotland has recently become the first country in the UK to grant children the same protection as adults against assault. Commonly known as the child smacking ban, it makes it a criminal offence for any adult, including parents, to resort to corporal punishment. Whilst Scotland’s move seems progressive, it is merely the 58th country to do this, with Sweden being the first ever to ban corporal punishment all the way back in 1979. Currently, in the rest of the UK, parents can, as is clearly stated on the Citizens Advice website, hit their children in the name of “reasonable punishment”. Reasonable to whom, it is unclear. Prevalence of corporal punishment depends on what time period or culture we look at. Some people, like US football player Adrian Peterson, even now defend hitting their children by attributing their personal success in life to being hit by their own parents when they were young. However, there is much to be said for leaving this practice behind and, in the words of Children First chief executive, Mary Glasgow, “[bringing] the law in line with the international evidence and modern parenting practice”.

The politics of the ban are evident enough, seeing as it was introduced by Scottish Greens MSP John Finnie, backed by most of the parties to such a degree that it passed by 84 to 29 votes in the Scottish Parliament. The distinct opposition to the bill came, predictably, from the Scottish Conservatives, who claim that the bill will criminalise decent parents disciplining their children. This seems a ludicrous dystopian thought that has failed to come about in any of the other 57 countries throughout the world that have outlawed corporal punishment. A study of six European countries showed that parents are almost twice as likely to say they hit their children if they live in countries where it is legal – other reports corroborate that both corporal punishment and youth violence are lower in countries where it has been outlawed and there is no evidence that this is accompanied by parents being increasingly rounded up and imprisoned.

Whether the lower instances of violence against children come as a result of such laws, or if the laws develop as a result of modern society’s progressive views on parenting, there seems to be little reason not to move with the times. Reform appears to be needed in the UK, as a report by a group of Scottish children’s charities claims that 70-80% of UK parents use physical punishment, much more than countries with comparable cultures like the US, Germany, Sweden, Canada, or Italy.  

Scottish citizens, if opinion polls are any indication, generally oppose the “smacking ban”, but the weight that should be given to their majoritarian argument depends on how we look at the issue. Children are certainly different in the eyes of the law, and sometimes for good reason as their developing mental faculties make them less responsible. However, such distinctions usually serve to protect and do not, as in this case, justify violence against them. If we look at this as a civil rights issue, it would be hard to place any other minority group (with the special impairment of not being able to vote on the matter) in the place of children and then demand that we be able to hit them for their own good.  

The long-standing evidence from research and expert advice is that hitting children as a form of discipline does not have any of the desired positive effects but causes plenty of short and long-term damage. As many who have endured physical abuse as children will attest, it damages the child-parent bond and can lead to stunted development later in life, depression, anxiety, self-esteem issues, substance abuse, or just general psychological maladjustment. Some studies find that parents who smack their children are seven times more likely to severely assault them as well, meaning that protecting the rights of “decent parents” could result in the law providing shelter for abusers. Is it too much to ask that parents resort to non-violent discipline in order to protect both their children and the standards of child-rearing in wider society? Government agencies, as well as GPs, can get involved in educating parents about alternatives, such as inductive discipline that involves reasoning, logical consequences, and setting limits. Parents do not own their children, they bear a responsibility to them, as does the whole “village” of society, so the corporal punishment ban is a welcome step in the right direction.


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