I was on my way home after an hour’s toddler-wrangling in church when I picked up a copy of the Mail on Sunday yesterday.
‘Labour MP: Smacking ban led to riots’ blazed the headline. Of course that’s not quite what Tottenham MP David Lammy had said.
What he did say is that too many parents “no longer feel sovereign in their own homes” and had lost “the ability to exercise their own judgment in relation to discipline and reasonable chastisement”.
Lammy argues the 2004 Children Act has created this fear. “When the law changed in 2004, it was to deal with people who abused their children. The law at that time left judges to determine if a parent had used reasonable chastisement. Under the new arrangements it is left to social workers.”
Let me insert an obvious disclaimer here: There are impeccable liberal arguments why corporal punishment is a bad idea. It can hide genuine abuse of children. Violence often begets violence. And it isn’t pleasant to either witness or participate in the smacking of a child.
So this is territory where we rightly tread warily. But tread in it we should. David Lammy’s warning is a dispatch from the frontline. His remarks are plainly an attempt to search for answers to how we overcome the social malaise that led to last summer’s rioting and looting, notably in his own constituency.
“Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour Government, saying, ‘You guys stopped us being able to smack our children’” he warned.
Overcoming his initial suspicion at this claim, he nevertheless found many parents are “paranoid that social workers will get involved and take their children away” if they smack them.
The bigger question David Lammy is raising is the importance of active parenting. Parents are the glue binding our society together. We on the left often get too caught up approaching social policy as a question of institutions, structures and resources.
It is a public-sector orientated view of the world that sometimes shades out the role families play in providing the common good. In this case, as Lammy found, the law on smacking is serving to inhibit parents from actually parenting.
But if we start from the premise that children need boundaries and those boundaries need to be enforced by parents, then smacking – sparingly and in the context of loving a child – has a place.
It is a nightmare trying to legislate for every single instance of when, where and how. Is it legitimate to smack a child who persists in running in the road? Or one that hits another child after being warned not to?
For the overwhelming multitude of parents the line between acceptable chastisement and unacceptable physical abuse will be obvious enough. Those for whom it is not obvious probably aren’t held back by the law however it is framed.
The critical issue that David Lammy raises is not just that parents, fearful of officialdom’s repercussions, observe a self-denying ordinance in smacking a child; but that they surrender in the wider battle to instil values and behaviours in their children.
Passive parenting is not parenting at all. There is no room for equivocation. Bringing up children must be a benign dictatorship.
In my experience, parents who have never felt compelled to smack their children are either sainted or lying. And many struggling parents simply aren’t equipped to lock psychological horns with their children the way the textbooks would have us. They smack not out of anger, or as a fist resort; but out of a desire to raise their kids properly and when all other pleas have been exhausted.
It is easy for pontificators to occupy the moral high ground here, but until you have been ground down as a parent trying to bring up a child you cannot know how draining the experience can be.
And it’s a bit difficult for parents raising their kids “on the 15th floor of a tower block” in David Lammy’s constituency, to send a child to sit on a non-existent naughty step. Or to send them to bed early when they share a room with a sibling.
David Lammy is right to shine a light on this issue. Many will disagree with him, but the state cannot – and should not – reach into every living room in the land. We need parents to feel empowered in bringing up their children to know right and wrong. If they hold back, wary of a knock at the door from children’s services, then they will fail to do so.
And the consequences should be obvious enough.