Whenever Louise Sylwander is in England, and sees a mother smacking her naughty child, she is shocked.
In Sweden, where Ms. Sylwander is the government's ombudsman for children, "people who spank their children are considered very odd or very mean," she says.
Indeed, they are outlaws. Spanking children, whether at school or in the home, has been banned in Sweden since 1979. Seven European nations have passed similar laws since then, and more are following suit as children's rights win wider recognition.
"Not long ago men were allowed to hit their servants, their wives, and their children," Sylwander points out. They no longer hit their servants or their wives she hopes, and it's time to stop hitting their children.
The trend has even reached Britain, the last country in Europe to ban corporal punishment in schools, where the practice was outlawed only last year - 216 years after Poland passed such a law. (In the United States, 27 states forbid the use of physical punishment in schools, but none have prohibited parents from spanking their children.)
In London, the government is circulating a flyer that suggests a ban on the use of canes, belts, slippers, and the like for beating children. The proposed legislation would also forbid parents from hitting children around the head.
The move was prompted by a 1998 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. A nine-year-old boy had appealed to the court because an English court had acquitted his stepfather - who had hit him repeatedly with a three-foot-long cane - on the grounds that he had used "reasonable chastisement."
The European court found that what the English judge called "reasonable chastisement" could more properly be described as "inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." This obliged London to amend its legislation.
The British government is not, however, planning to ban smacking "in a loving and caring" environment. "We firmly believe in the rights of parents to make decisions about how they bring their children up," says Junior Health Minister John Hutton.
In this, the government is clearly following public opinion: a survey last year found that 88 percent of British parents thought they sometimes needed to spank their offspring, though 90 percent opposed the use of any implement other than an open hand.
Government opponents are incensed at what they see as an incursion into personal affairs. "We've taken the nanny state too far when we have to have court rulings about what people can do with their own children in their own home on things like this," said Conservative Party leader William Hague.
Antispanking activists, on the other hand, insist that the government should show leadership in changing public attitudes.
That certainly seems to have happened in Sweden, where over 60 percent of the population was opposed to the 1979 law when it was passed, but where only 6 percent of parents under 35 now support using physical punishment.
Eight European countries have imposed outright bans on smacking - Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Latvia, Norway, and Sweden. The German and Bulgarian parliaments are considering such bans, the Italian supreme court has ruled that hitting a child is illegal, and a select committee of the Irish parliament calls for banning all use of violence against children.
In Spain, the law allows parents to "administer punishment to their children reasonably and in moderation." This has drawn criticism from the United Nations committee that monitors compliance with the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by every country in the world except Somalia and the United States.
The convention outlaws all corporal punishment of children, but few countries have implemented its provisions.
In France, ironically, childrens' rights activists are seeking to water down the law. An 1804 law penalizing "blows or wounds to another person" prescribes higher punishments if the victim is a child, and especially harsh punishment if the blow is delivered by the adult responsible for the child.
"The sanctions are so severe that the law is not applied because judges don't want to send family heads to prison," explains Jacqueline Cornet, who is leading a campaign against smacking in France. "A smack is not like a normal assault, and we need a special law that would not send parents to prison, but would direct them to seek help" with child-rearing.
Mr. Hutton says the government does not want to criminalize "ordinary, decent, caring parents." But the countries that have banned spanking have actually seen fewer cases come to court than Britain, where the law is ambiguous.
"Swedish children are very familiar with the law, and sometimes they remind their parents about it," says Sylwander. "But they have not been going down to the police station ... to report their parents' crimes."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society