LONDON — When is a spanking more than a spanking? When does parental discipline cross the line from an occasional spank to keep an unruly child in order to a beating?
The great parenting debate is now a great federal government debate here. As a new children's bill makes its way through Parliament, ministers and officials are debating whether all forms of corporal punishment - even by parents - should be banned. The government has taken state interference in personal behavior to a new level; it now seems to distrust parents so much that it thinks they can't distinguish between disciplining their kids and assaulting them.
In Britain, a legal judgment dating from 1860 - the Victorian era - allows parents and guardians to hit children if they can show that only "reasonable chastisement" was intended. Physical punishment by teachers was outlawed in Britain's state-run schools in 1986 and in private schools in 1999, no doubt drawing sighs of relief from generations of schoolchildren who were educated under threat of the cane.
Last year, the government committed itself to banning childminders from spanking children, even when they have permission to do so from the child's parents. This will leave parents as the only adults under British law who are allowed to hit children.
Soon even that might change. The government is under pressure from a powerful anti-spanking lobby to outlaw all forms of physical punishment. The Children Are Unbeatable! alliance - which consists of 350 organizations, including the prestigious National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) - maintains "There is nothing good or healthy or loving or safe about deliberately hurting children."
Last year, the regional government of Scotland barred parents from hitting their children on the head or with an implement, but fell short of declaring an all-out spanking ban. Now government officials in London are feeling the heat, and have promised to consider outlawing all corporal punishment.
Britain's antispanking campaign has little to do with weighing the merits, or otherwise, of spanking as a form of discipline. Rather, it is driven by a view of parents, and adults in general, as not being trustworthy enough to care for children. The assumption behind the government's reopening of the spanking debate seems to be that parents cannot differentiate between a light smack and a serious assault.
According to one report, the government wants to define in law the difference between a "minor tap administered to the runaway toddler by the frustrated parent" and "the harsh strike that amounts to physical assault."
It is patronizing, and plain wrong, to assume that most parents do not know the difference.
Some in the antispanking lobby argue that, unless all forms of physical punishment are outlawed, the "minor tap" can easily become a "harsh strike," or something much worse.
Lady Walmsley, a spokeswoman for the NSPCC, has said that all child deaths by violence "start with a smack." David Hinchliffe, a member of Parliament with the ruling Labour Party and chairman of the health committee, cited the murder of Victoria Climbie as part of his argument against spanking. The 8-year-old was killed by her great-aunt and her great-aunt's boyfriend in their London apartment in 2000, a crime that shocked Britain. According to Mr. Hinchliffe, Victoria's death was the result of an "escalation of discipline and punishment that had started with little slaps."
But this is a slippery-slope argument, and a deeply offensive one at that. The implication is that parents who start out spanking their kids might end up murdering them.
Many in the antispanking lobby blur the distinction between spanking and assault. The Children Are Unbeatable! alliance wants to "criminalize any assault of a child." Yet when parents spank their kids, it is not necessarily assault. The vast majority of parents who physically punish their children - because they have done something wrong or have put themselves in danger or are being willfully disobedient - are not behaving violently. Violence is the use of physical force with the intention to injure or abuse or humiliate. Most parents who spank their children - today and through human history - are acting out of love and concern.
Children Are Unbeatable! argues that there is nothing positive about "deliberately hurting children." That is true. But parents who spank are not "deliberately hurting" their children; they are disciplining them, teaching them, caring for them.
I was regularly spanked by my parents as a child, sometimes even with an "implement," as Scottish law now so crudely puts it. But I don't see these as "assaults," or "acts of violence." Like every other kid, I tried to avoid spankings, but I recognize that they helped to keep me, and my five siblings, in line.
It says a lot about the antispanking lobby, and its motivations, that it cannot grasp the basic distinction between loving discipline to improve behavior and violent assault to cause injury.
The drive to outlaw spanking is informed by a deeply distrustful view of parents. There is an assumption that child abuse by parents is widespread, that it is happening everywhere behind closed doors, that parents who spank are murderers in the making.
Such a climate of mistrust and suspicion is surely far worse for children than the occasional spanking.
• Brendan O'Neill is assistant editor of spiked- online.com.