SpankStephen King once said that sometimes there is absolutely no difference at all between salvation and damnation. I’ve only ever really appreciated the truth of those words since I had my son 17 months ago. I wouldn’t be without him and he can be really great fun, but some of the worst moments of my life have come in the past 17 months too. He’s now approaching the age at which a little discipline has to be applied, with his mischievous behaviour and foul temper frequently putting him in daddy’s bad book. But how is a child to be disciplined? Does the state have any role in laying down a framework for parents? My mind wanders back 20 years…

It’s the year 1988. The cat is screaming in pain. I’m running up the stairs. Mum isn’t very happy. Two minutes and one smack later and I’m not much chuffed myself. I never swung the cat by the tail again.

In our current socio-political climate I always joke with my mum that I could probably sue her for the things she did to me as a child. But my upbringing wasn’t very much different with respect to corporal punishment than that of millions of other law-abiding citizens over the past few decades who didn’t become violent criminals and aren’t lacking in mental health, as the anti-smacking brigade predict of children who get smacked. In fact, it seems to me that today’s kids – the lesser-smacked generation – are reaching brand new heights of ill-discipline.

So, is smacking a legitimate form of discipline or should it be illegal?

A leading argument against the legal right of a parent to smack a child is articulated by Janet Alty of the Green Party: “An adult never has the right to assault another adult; why do we think we have the right to hit our children?” This ‘wrong to hit adults, therefore wrong to hit children’ argument is prima facie persuasive, but it falls apart when examined more closely.

Firstly, Ms Alty uses inaccurate and highly emotive language. This debate isn’t between people in favour of child abuse and people against it. That’s a terribly bad caricature. Assaulting children is something that is already illegal. There’s a world of difference between assault and a smack. Baroness Finlay of Llandoff makes a similar equivocation when she writes, “We aim to give children the same protection from assault as adults currently enjoy…we protect in law all our citizens from battery but not children.”

I must say that if these ladies ever get attacked late at night by a hooded guy with a baseball bat then they’re very much in for a big surprise and I suspect their definition of assault and battery might be changed somewhat. A parental smack is not battery. Physically restraining a child and giving it a smack is not the same thing as throwing it down the stairs headfirst into a glass door. We’re talking about giving mischievous children a light tap, not cracking skulls with golf clubs.

I always laughed when my dad smacked me – even though he was stronger than my mum. His problem is that he couldn’t frighten me. The worst thing about a smack isn’t physical pain but the tone of voice and facial expressions used to accompany it, and the embarrassment. My mother was rather gifted at conveying disgust and anger and instilling a sense of shame. I sometimes wrestle with my son and the other night I turned him upside down and played bongos on his butt-cheeks. He roared with laughter. In the event of a smack he wouldn’t be hit any harder than that: but it will be the tone of voice, the expression of anger, and the facial expressions which turns physical contact into a punishment. Even though he isn’t getting hit any harder he will know the difference, and the difference won’t be in the severity of physical touch. The physical punishment reinforces the words, but it is the words and the manner of their delivery that is the real discipline. If smacking should be banned then perhaps wrestling with my son should be outlawed too. After all they involve similar levels of physical contact.

There’s an even bigger problem with the ‘you wouldn’t do it to an adult, therefore you shouldn’t do it to a child’ argument. Most of the anti-smacking lobby call for the use of other methods of discipline: grounding children from going out and playing with their friends, withholding their pocket money, banning them from watching TV, making them do extra housework, or sending them to their room for the rest of the night. But what happens if we apply the same logic to these alternatives? It seems to me that we could also ban all of these other forms of discipline too. I wouldn’t dream of getting up in the middle of an argument with my wife and telling her to go to her room to “think about what you did!” Nor would I attempt to ban her from watching TV because I don’t think her behaviour was appropriate in some particular instance. I can just see her face now if I were to tell her to stay in the street where I can see her and be back home by 9 o’clock or else. To see just how stupid Ms Alty’s argument is we can take out the terms ‘assault’ and ‘hitting’ and plug in any other form of discipline that a parent may use to punish a child: “An adult never has the right to stop another adult from going out with his or her friends; why do we think we have the right to stop children from going out with their friends?” Or, “An adult never has the right to confine another adult to their bedroom for an entire night; why do we think we have the right to send children to their bedroom for an entire night?”

The flaw in the argument is the assumption that children are our equals and that therefore the relationship between a child and a parent is equal to that which exists between two adults. But, children are not our equals at all. That’s why we can force them to go to school against their will, make decisions about what they can and cannot eat, disqualifying them from voting, driving, drinking, smoking, and decide what time they must go to bed at. A parent has the responsibility to shape a child’s behaviour and when children are unruly the parents must share some of the responsibility for that. To do this requires discipline and punishment – which an adult is not placed to apply to his or her relationships to other adults. A relationship between adults is therefore not the same as a relationship between an adult and a child, because a child is not equal to an adult. The analogy simply does not hold.

But, perhaps by smacking children we are telling them that violence or the use of force is acceptable. As Baroness Finlay argues, “[children] are being taught that the way to get someone to do what you want is to hit them.”

What tosh! When I got hit as a child I never once entertained the thought that, “hey, smacking people’s a great way to get what I want.” Children aren’t normally as reflective as that. Instead, they connect a smack to a certain form of wrong behaviour: “I just got smacked, so telling the minister to fuck off is bad.” Millions of people over countless decades provide overwhelming evidence that smacking does not ingrain in people the notion that hitting people is a good and acceptable way to get them to do what we want them to do. The evidence to support this assertion simply doesn’t exist.

But does a lesser charge stick – that smacking teaches kids that the use of physical force is acceptable in some instances? I think it is probably true that kids can and will learn that the use of physical force can be acceptable. But, what’s so bad about this? Only the most die-hard, baggy-jumper wearing, dope smoking, nose-ringed, unwashed pacifist would attempt to argue that the use of physical force is never acceptable. Our society relies heavily on the use of physical force in certain instances – most obviously in criminal law and the military. Teaching kids that physical force in certain contexts is justifiable is not the gross sin that it is often made out to be. It’s good for kids to learn such boundaries.

A ban on smacking would do nothing to reduce the kind of abuse that the anti-smacking brigade is hoping to eliminate. They argue that a ban sends out the message to society that hitting children is not acceptable. But, the types of abuse that we should be protecting children from are already illegal. There is no damage caused to either child or to society by the use of parental smacking. All we have been offered to the contrary is a load of scare-stories that smacking produces the violent criminals of the future, when in fact there is far more evidence to suggest that parental neglect rather than discipline has a link to later criminal behaviour. A ban would simply criminalize many loving parents and cause great family distress as many unjustified police investigations are made into family life.

Indeed we must put an end to child abuse in all its forms, but outlawing smacking, criminalizing parents and causing unwarranted family strife, is not the way to do it.