The old proverb would tell us that ‘…the more you beat them, the better they be’. Similar verse advises parents to, ‘speak roughly to your little boy and beat him when he sneezes’, but what do we really know about corporal punishment? Is it true, as many say, that it ‘never did me any harm’?
Scotland has legislated to prohibit corporal punishment by parents. The position in the rest of the UK is not as absolute. It was not until 1986 that such punishment was outlawed in state schools. Private schools hung on to their canes until 1998. Section 58 of the Children Act 2004 removed the defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ from parents charged with offences under sections 18 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (wounding and causing grievous bodily harm), assault occasioning actual bodily harm under s47 of the Act, or an offence of child cruelty under s1 Children and Young Persons Act 1933. So, smacking your children remains legal, provided it does not cause injury or leave a bruise. The paradox, that the same assault on an adult would be prosecuted as a common assault, remains unresolved.
As a lawyer, the temptation is to approach the issue through the prism of the child’s rights, but I think that there is a more direct, pragmatic approach, which leaves no room for further dispute. As long as it can be argued that corporal punishment achieves its objective, then it can be said that the ends justify the means and that the long-term benefits to the child of growing into a disciplined adult, able to take their place successfully in society, outweigh the short-term costs. However, what if it were demonstrated that the benefits are illusory and the harm, lasting and serious? The punishment is then reduced to an act of domestic abuse by an adult on someone weaker than them and quite unable to defend themselves. It is no more than the adult having a violent tantrum, of the kind they should have out-grown years ago.
My life is measured out in dogs. Over a half century, I am quite sure that they have taught me far more than I have managed to impart to them in the way of training, but I start here, because there is a parallel debate in animal training between those who rely solely on rewards-based training and those who advocate ‘aversives’ such as shock collars, water sprays, ear biting and alpha-rolls. Since humans and dogs have evolved together over many thousands of years, it is reasonable to think that we may have developed similar behaviours and reactions.
What the work of animal scientists, such as Dr Ian Dunbar and John Bradshaw, have demonstrated, is that dogs are poor at working out cause and effect in the behaviour of others. If the dog is physically punished for doing something, that punishment can only be effective if the animal is able to make the causal link between that specific act and the unpleasant outcome. If the link is not made, then the dog becomes increasingly anxious, as they are not able to predict whether the owner will behave kindly or aggressively. This leads to a dog who is ‘hand-shy’, who will cower when a hand is extended because it cannot tell whether it is to be hit or stroked.
The owner returns home to find that the dog has shredded the post. The owner drags the dog to the ‘scene of the crime’ and spanks it. The dog does not make the link with the post. He had defended the pack’s den and destroyed an intruder, but that was hours ago. He thinks, ‘I don’t know what to make of this person. Sometimes he is kind when he comes in, sometimes I get attacked. Stay out of his way and be careful in future’.
Our dogs crave attention and reward. Perhaps they are uncomfortably close to us in this respect? Behaviour (good or bad) which generates this will be repeated. Behaviour which does not generate a reward is a waste of time and effort and so is discontinued.
The point of the digression is this. The lessons from animal and, particularly, dog training are directly transferable to people. Children crave attention and even if the attention is a thrashing, it is still attention. If it is possible to train a cocker spaniel (possibly the most self-willed, infuriating and utterly wonderful breed ever to set foot on a moor) to win field trial championships, or locate drugs in a pile of smelly socks, by using no more than biscuits, praise and a tennis ball, surely the same can be applied to our children?
Two pieces of research from North America raise strong evidence that physical chastisement of children is both ineffective, counter-productive and ultimately damaging. ‘Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses’, by Elizabeth Gershoff and Andrew Grogan-Taylor, was published in the Journal of Family Psychology in June 2016. Here, the researchers looked at five decades of studies, involving over 160,000 children. They were not looking at children beaten with fists or sticks. The studies looked at the effects of ‘an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities’. The clear conclusion from a half century of studies, was that the more children are smacked/spanked, the more likely they are to defy their parents, which is, of course the very opposite of the result being sought. There was no evidence that smacking was associated with either immediate or long-term compliance. It was a total waste of time and effort, if what was sought was improved behaviour from the child.
The researchers also found strong evidence for what I have come to refer to as the ‘Heathcliffe Syndrome’, where the victim of the abuse grows up to inflict the same abuse they suffered. Those who had received physical chastisement as children, were more likely to support corporal punishment of their own children, creating a self-perpetuating cycle of abuse.
A paper published this year in Child Abuse and Neglect by Tracie Afifi et al looks at the impact of physical chastisement on adult health outcomes, particularly mental health. Here, the researchers start from the established position that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as child abuse are linked to poor health outcomes in adulthood. They examine whether the link exists between children spanked/smacked and the same poor adult health.
The paper notes at the outset that ‘there are no studies showing that spanking enhances children’s development or physical or mental health’. It then goes on to consider whether even in the absence of positive effects there are harmful ones.
The chief finding is that smacking children increases the risk of suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking and street drug use in adulthood in just the same way as physical and emotional abuse would do. Even when the results of the survey, which involved over 8,000 respondents, are adjusted to take out the impact of any physical and emotional abuse which the person may also have suffered, the impact of repeated physical punishment remains.
The authors consider that smacking and physical abuse should be thought of as existing ‘along a continuum of violence against children rather than as separate constructs’. They conclude;
‘The relationship between reports of being spanked in childhood and mental and behavioural health impairment in adulthood are similar in direction to the associations between Physical/Emotional abuse and adult suicide attempts, moderate to heavy drinking and street drug use. Therefore, these results provide strong support for consideration of spanking as an ACE.’
For as long as our legislation continues to give permission to parents to inflict long-term harm on their children, whatever the provocation, the cycle of violence in the home will continue. What is the point of Practice Directions to deal with domestic abuse and contact, when our parliament says that that violence, against small, defenceless children, by adults is acceptable?