NOTEBOOK by BILL HEANEY
Did yer mammy ever hit ye when ye were a wean? I don’t remember mine hitting me (smacking was a term seldom used in West Dumbarton) but I do remember the sanctions taken against me when I was, allegedly, “a bad boy”.
Not being allowed out to play football in the street or free all leavers would have been much greater punishment than a cuff on the lug or or a slap on the backside.
If the truth be told though, few of us ever did anything that merited corporal punishment, although I do remember one boy whose father took a clothes rope to his legs because he robbed the gas meter for the money to go to the pictures.
During this lockdown, there have been many quiet moments for all us to allow our minds to stray back to our childhood.
But childhood is like the weather. We seldom remember the bad days but recall just the good ones when the sun was splitting the cossies and the tar was melting in the street outside. Who remembers trying to chew it?
Hitting children wasn’t something people talked about. It was not the number one subject amongst women getting the ten past nine bus down to the High Street for that day’s messages.
I know this because I used to sit in the back seat upstairs (room for three persons only) and listen to them passing on the night before’s news, which was usually about whose man got drunk on Friday night and came home without his wages or, on the bright side, who had landed a job in Denny’s after being out of work for six months.
Money coming into the house meant food on the table, bus fares for those who were working, cash for five Woodbine in those wee green paper packets or ten Capstan, Players or Senior Service. And maybe even a Provident cheque for some new clothes around Easter.
Mostly though, it meant peace.
Looking at some official papers today, it became clear to me that so many things had changed, changed utterly.
Is the child smacking bill currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament exaggerating the situating simply to give MSPs something to do with their time?
Is this another example of Parkinson’s Law which is that work expands to fill the time allocated to it?
It would appear from the reports back from Lady Smith’s Child Abuse Inquiry that there are large numbers of children being treated very badly indeed in Scotland.
However, it’s not their parents who are committing the worst crimes against them, it’s the State, religious orders and prosperous secular organisations who are torturing and terrifying children who are placed in their “care”.
There was a committee meeting about corporal punishment for children in Holyrood last week.
One man, Diego Quiroz, told MSPs: “For us, it is quite clear that the measure in the bill is not aimed at criminalising parents or interfering with family life. Rather, it sets a clear standard of care giving and redefines what is acceptable in terms of how we treat our children in Scotland.
“There should be no concerns about safeguarding children’s dignity and physical integrity by encouraging positive discipline and education of children through non-violent means.
“It is the duty of Governments and public bodies to take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect children from all forms of physical and mental violence.
“That has been reinforced by the European Court of Human Rights and several UN bodies, as you mentioned.
“In a Swedish case, a German case and a Dutch case, the European Court of Human Rights has said that the right to family life is not interfered with by protecting the child from corporal punishment, which would clearly interfere with the child’s right to dignity.
“There are several cases that support the prohibition of physical punishment of children and rebut the idea that that measure would interfere with family life and the right of parents to discipline their children.”
LibDem Alex Cole-Hamilton, pictured left, asked: “So, that tension is based on a false prospectus, because there is no clause in international treaties that says that parents should have the right to physically punish their children?”
Diego Quiroz, who sounds more like a Real Madrid player than those people we were threatened with as a deterrent to make us behave and used to call “the Cruelty Man” replied: “Absolutely.”
My eyes almost fell out when I read the contribution that followed. It was from Dr Stuart Waiton, of Abertay University, who was asked, along with the rest of the panel, whether he supported the bill’s aim of bringing an end to the physical punishment of children.
Dr Waiton told MSPs: “I think that it is a tragic, depressing bill and yet another one that appears to represent the aloof, elitist nature of politics and professional life that treats parents in a very patronising and degrading way.
“It uses all sorts of weird legalistic talk about violence that makes no sense at all to ordinary people, it equates children with adults and it criminalises parents, despite people claiming that it does not.
“The claim that all the evidence proves that any level of smacking of children damages them is absolutely untrue and the opposite of the truth, but I presume that I am just wasting my time, because the bill has already been passed.”
He added: “I do not accept the concepts and I do not accept the people who are defining the concepts. The idea of children’s rights is a bit of a nonsense concept. Children do not have rights. They do not have the same framework of rights as adults; they have protections.
“In essence, when we talk about children’s rights, we are really talking about the right of professionals to make decisions on their behalf. It is a confused concept that goes against the framework of how we have thought historically about rights in terms of freedoms. It is a problem.
“The problem that we have with the bill is, in essence, about a question of autonomy.
“You are undermining the autonomy of loving parents to decide how to raise their children with a sense of privacy and a sense of support from society.
“In that process, you are degrading something that is done as a form of discipline that should not be understood as a form of violence.
“Parents should be supported rather than undermined. For me, this is a question of autonomy and I think that you have to question the whole framework of how you think about children’s rights.”
Dr Waiton added: “I do not look at adults and children as the same, unlike the people who are supporting the bill, who seem to look at adults and children as the same and therefore degrade or confuse actions.
“If there are people here who defend the idea that adults and children should be treated the same in terms of violence, I assume that they see smacking a child and smacking a woman as the same thing, which I think is degrading to women because they are not the same thing.
“Adults and children are very different and we would not expect, for example, to ground our partners and refuse to let them leave the house. That would be seen as a criminal offence, whereas we ground our children—or perhaps in a few years’ time you will be making that criminal as well.”
Professor Jane Callaghan of Stirling University.
Domestic abuse expert Professor Jane Callaghan told the MSPs: “Having done hundreds of interviews with children who have experienced domestic abuse, I would have to say that I cannot agree that children are a different order of human being from adults and I cannot agree that they do not have person-hood, that they do not have a capacity to reflect on their experiences and that they are not harmed by those experiences.
“On the loving parent defence, unfortunately there is reasonable international evidence—for instance, a study by Xing and Wang—that suggests that that defence does not function particularly well and that children experience the same level of harm as a consequence of smacking by parents regardless of whether it is loving or motivated positively or not.
“Unfortunately, I also cannot agree that the balance of evidence does anything other than indicate that corporal punishment has no positive consequences and has plenty of negative consequences in terms of mental health outcomes, exposure to risk of future physical harm and difficulties around issues like attainment.
“There is evidence, for instance, that children who have experienced corporal punishment at home are more likely to be disengaged from school and to experience educational difficulties.”
She added: “The balance of evidence suggests that there is a strong correlation between parents who are willing to use smacking and who use smacking and parents who are likely to lose control in their disciplinary practices. “
Dr Waiton interjected: “It seems fairly clear to me that there is what we call advocacy research, which is where people have already made their minds up, and there is research where people are actually trying to look at the issue.
“There have been nine studies that take an overview of all the research and that seven of them do not come to the conclusion that smacking—particularly back-up smacking—is harmful to children.
“He [the author] concludes that back-up smacking, which is something that is not used as a first or only resort—it involves parents generally not smacking, but occasionally doing so—ends up being the best form of discipline.
“The idea that there is proof or evidence that a light form of smacking damages children is not borne out.
Dr Waiton added: “I do not even accept that slapping a three, four or five-year-old child on the wrist should be understood as violence. That is completely confused. Why not ask my daughter, who is sitting over there? I smacked her occasionally when she was a child. I will ask her. Have you been violent recently? Are you going to beget violence?
“You just have to be honest with yourself. Do you think that smacking a three, four or five-year-old child on the wrist begets violence? If you think that it does, you really are on another planet.
“If you are politicians, why do you not try to persuade the public? Some 75 per cent of people do not think that physical punishment of a child should be made criminal. Why not try to persuade them instead of beating them?
“You are doing the equivalent of what you are trying to ban. Stop beating parents by criminalising them. Go out there, have public meetings, bring your professors who can say to them, ‘Oh, if you smack a child on the wrist, that is a form of violence that begets violence,’ and see what the public think of you. You are meant to be their representatives, after all, are you not? It is a shame that you are not listening to them. Do you accept that the majority of parents would not support the criminalisation of parenting?”
The discussion was becoming heated. LibDem Alex Cole-Hamilton said: ” Dr Waiton described physical chastisement such as a slap on the wrist. In 2003, when Parliament previously legislated in this area, we introduced restrictions on physical punishment.
“They were that there must be no shaking, no head shots and no use of implements. That is it—that is the extent of the limits on physical punishment in this country. Anything below the neck and even anything to the point of pain and harm is legitimate. Where do you get the idea that a slap on the wrist is the sum total of the physical punishment that goes on in homes in Scotland?”
Dr Waiton replied: “It is not necessarily the sum total, but the bill would criminalise what is done. As far as I understand it, the concept ‘reasonable chastisement’ still exists, so if you are unreasonable, you can be taken to court and challenged on that ground.
“There are lots of people who would think, if they saw a child being strongly beaten by their parent, that that was unreasonable and would challenge it.
“The committee could go back and think about whether you want to use different words in the bill: as it stands, you will be criminalising somebody who smacks a child on the bottom or smacks the child’s hand.”
Alex Cole-Hamilton replied: “There are many parents in this room, all of whom could attest to the feeling of losing control when disciplining their children, whether it involves time out, shouting or even, perhaps, smacking. Do you think that every member of every family in this country who uses physical punishment always retains control when they are deploying physical punishment?”
Dr Waiton said: “No, but nor do I think that you would be helping that family by arresting the person.”
Diego Quiroz said some of the arguments being made “about children not having inherent rights and being treated as property, as wives were treated a century ago, or as slaves even, are shocking. That is quite appalling.”
And, in support of parents keeping their hands to themselves, he added: “Because children are SPARE THE vulnerable as a result of their mental and physical immaturity, they should be afforded not less protection but more protection. The state has a duty to afford them at least equal protection; otherwise, the principle of equality before the law is being violated.
“Smacking is not just ill treatment. It has an impact on other rights. It has a long-term impact on health and it has an impact on the child’s development, the child’s understanding of the world and the message that we as a society in Scotland want to send.
“Another member of the panel gave an example in relation to his ownchild. Last night, I asked my six-year-old child, ‘Why should the Parliament prohibit hitting or smacking you?’ She talked about herself and said, ‘Because it’s bad’ I said,’What do you mean by that?’ She said, ‘If you hit me, I can go and hit other people.’
“Her point was that it sends the wrong message. I am amazed by the simplicity and accuracy of children’s thinking, which is sometimes lost when we grow up into adults.”
The West Dunbartonshire committee dealing with domestic abuse which involves both women and children. Picture by Bill Heaney
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- Artwork by Jane Heaney