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To spank or not to spank? France, Europe spar over parental discipline. (+video)

The Council of Europe cited France this week for not barring corporal punishment of children, but the French feel it is an intrusion into the private family sphere.

A little boy at a Parisian park stood defiant when his father told him on a recent Sunday that it was time to go home. When the stern “arrête!” made the tantrum worse, the father gave him a quick smack on his bottom, called in French la fessée.

It drew little attention here, where a parent’s authority is prized. But it is an action that human rights advocates hope will eventually become punishable.

A strongly worded condemnation from the Council of Europe this week of French tolerance for mild corporal punishment – coming just a few days after the scene at the Paris park – is heating up debate on the Continent. Where the French see an intrusion into family life, not to mention possible criminalization of parenting, anti-spanking advocates see a needed spur to change cultural attitudes.

Spanking has been falling dramatically out of favor with human rights advocates over the past decade. Pope Francis set off a firestorm recently when he seemed to condone it, calling a father’s slap “beautiful” because it was dignified – not across the face. But those who support freedom to spank say banning it undermines parents – and could be one more step toward a child-dominant society that, as one Swedish psychologist puts it, makes parents afraid to discipline and risks a new generation of “brats.”

But advocates of a ban say the ruling could embarrass France – which allows leeway in physical discipline for family members as long as it's not abusive – into falling more in line with the majority of the European Union. The Council of Europe, which has a handful of pending cases to rule on by spring, made its position clear when it declared there is “now a wide consensus at both the European and international level among human rights bodies that the corporal punishment of children should be expressly and comprehensively prohibited in law.”

“What has changed in the last decade is that now the human rights community is united [in the belief that] corporal punishment is a violation of their rights,” says Peter Newell, coordinator of the UK-based Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children, whose legal entity Approach brought the case against France. The aim is not to create a class of parent perpetrators and see those like the French father actually fined, he says, but rather to change cultural attitudes the same way acceptance of slapping or shoving a woman has changed.

Sweden was the first in the world to implement a ban on corporal punishment in 1979. To date, 44 countries have prohibited corporal punishment in all settings, including the home. In the EU, 19 of 28 states either have a full ban or are committed to having one. Britain and France have not. Corporal punishment of children is not illegal in the US.

Child abuse is illegal in France, but “right of correction” is allowed for educational purposes. The Council of Europe ruling centers around the fact that the French clause violates its commitment to the European Social Charter, which states that “domestic law must prohibit and penalize all forms of violence against children.”

But Laurence Rossignol, French family minister, has said France doesn’t need a new law. “For abusive parents, we have a penal code,” she told Agence France-Presse. For those who resort to occasional punishment, she added, “we need to help them do things differently and not discredit them by saying ‘the judge is coming to deal with that.’”

Gilles Lazimi, head of the Foundation for Childhood, faults a lack of political will in France. His organization aired a segment on television in 2013 of a mother slapping her son when he wouldn’t quiet down as she was on the phone and trying to get dinner on the table. The scene is then aired in slow motion, showing a dramatic contortion of the child’s face.

It caused an uproar as many French said it unfairly dramatized the effects of a “little slap.” But Mr. Lazimi’s point was that “there is no such thing as a little slap,” he says.

Still, polls have shown some 80 percent in France opposing a spanking ban as a violation of rights in the private sphere. Many say they don't necessarily spank but want to reserve the right if an action justifies it, such as running out into the street. And that’s a sentiment that David Eberhard, a Swedish psychologist, can understand. “If that is the culture you have, the way it’s been done, and everyone is doing it, and it’s working, why should I have a ban?”

Dr. Eberhard, author of “How Children Took Power,” says he does not personally support spanking. But he does lament that parents, in Sweden and beyond, are increasingly afraid to hand down consequences to their children. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen to them, but the family is not a democracy, there is an asymmetric relationship.”

The French seem to still believe in the asymmetry of the family, at least based on anecdotal evidence. American journalist Pamela Druckerman detailed in “Bringing Up Bébé” the differences in the no-nonsense style of French parents v. the indulgence of Anglos, summarizing that French children simply behave better.

But Mr. Newell says that, at least when it comes to corporal punishment, differences in attitudes do not reflect a differing culture towards violence or authoritarianism, just different political action.

In fact, such bans are never popular. “It has been a traditional practice with a lot of social approval forever. … Our main challenge is that most adults were hit as children,” he says.

But like the smoking bans or seatbelt laws of earlier years that were hotly contested at the outset, new norms quickly take shape. In “countries like Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Austria, where the law has been enforced for some time, you see quite dramatic changes in the level of support among the public.”

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