David Lammy’s cunning plan of hitting children to make them less likely to be violent has a fairly obvious flaw writes Laura Woods.

David Lammy ( Labour MP for Tottenham) has argued that legal restrictions which stop parents hitting their children are one of the causes of last summer’s riots. He has found common cause with Mayor of London Boris Johnson who has expressed his agreement; he also claimed to be supported by Education Secretary Michael Gove. At least I now know never to ask any of them to babysit my children.

The idea of hitting children in order to teach them that violence and lack of control is wrong is nonsensical. There can be no logical justification for a big person to hit a small person in the name of parental responsibility. A child is a person, not a possession of their parent. Adults can not physically assault another adult without breaking the law but, under current law, they can hit a small child so long as they only cause ‘temporary reddening of the skin.’ David Lammy would like to be able to hit children with more force than that. Those who think they should be able to hit children and cause more than a reddening of the skin presumably don’t think they should be allowed to cripple or kill children – but it is never clear where the limit to permitted force should be.

It is known by social workers that the defence of reasonable chastisement used by parents muddies the waters in child protection cases. Parents have very different interpretations of ‘reasonable’ and the very fact the law sanctions parents smacking their children justifies a level of violence against them which would not be allowed against adults or, indeed pets.

There is evidence that smacking can escalate into serious harm to children. I will not say smacking can lead to child abuse, because I consider smacking a child to be abusive in itself.

To give an example; Victoria Climbie was an 8 year old child who died of hypothermia, malnourishment and with 128 separate injuries on her body after months of abuse by her great aunt Marie Therese Kouao and partner Carl Manning. Kouao blamed health services for Victoria’s death saying, ‘You don’t kill people by smacking them.‘ This is a clear reflection of the way sanctioning violence against children provides a skewed perspective on acceptable behaviour.

David Hinchcliffe, chair of the health committee examining the institutional mistakes leading to Victoria Climbie’s death, said ‘the …reasonable chastisement defence from parents..can impede the prosecution of child abuse cases.’

The Joint Committee on Human Rights in 2003 said ‘there is evidence that ‘reasonable’ is interpreted by the courts..to cover a range of behaviour that many people would consider went beyond a loving smack.’

The very argument that hitting children can be justified in any way is reminiscent of the time when domestic violence was legal and tolerated. That men would have the right to hit women within the law now seems unbelievable. Why then do adults still have the right to hit children?

David Lammy speaks of having smacked his 3 year and 5 year old children. These are tiny children, whose ability to rationalise and consider consequences of their actions and ideas of wrongdoing, are only just beginning to develop. It makes me shudder to think of a grown man using physical force against them.

In families where there are high levels of stress, drug and alcohol problems, domestic violence and isolation, violence against children is more likely. It is precisely these stressed and struggling families that David Lammy is encouraging to hit their children. Children who have been subject to corporal punishment are more likely to suffer from mental health problems. It is also a risk factor for increased levels of aggression and anti social behaviour in children. Crucially, it raises the thresholds for defining an act as violent.

The real causes of the riots were high unemployment, high levels of poverty, anger at the police, alienation from society and a sense of hopelessness. Instead of telling us how such endemic and systematic problems will be resolved, Lammy advocates hitting those disadvantaged children and using the very form of parenting which will lead to then having greater social problems in later life. After all, as parenting classes and Sure Starts are closed down and Labour sits back barely raising a murmur, smacking seems a cheap and easy option.

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