Positive relationships: Let's talk about ... smacking

A group of private nursery practitioners tell Annette Rawstrone about how they deal with parents who use physical punishment on their young children.

Q: Has a parent ever smacked their child at your nursery?

'We have been open for 12 years and it was only a few weeks ago that we had an incident where a father smacked his child at the nursery. The nursery nurse mentioned that his six-year-old son had been unkind to another child. She thought he'd then taken his son off to get his coat, but he actually took him away, smacked him and then came back to say he'd dealt with the situation. The staff were all very shocked. I wrote to the father and said that we do not condone as practice what he had done and I did not want a repeat of it.'

'When we first opened our nursery, many years ago, we had an incident of a parent smacking their child in the setting. The child was wound up into a frenzy and so was the dad. He took him into an alcove and smacked him on the top of the leg. To be honest, we were so surprised that we didn't do anything.

'Since then we've made it known at induction that if a child is distressed we will cope with the situation, and we've never come across it again.'

'I can tell that parents have sometimes felt like smacking their children at nursery, but they are aware of the environment and that we don't smack.'

'Parents have occasionally told us that we have their authority to smack the child if they are naughty. I respond by saying that I'd lose my licence if we did that and the nursery would be closed down.'

'We would step in quickly if it looked like they were going to smack their child. We have a clear policy that smacking is not allowed on our premises at all. Our policy states that staff will respond if there is any need for discipline even if the parent is present. The children are our responsibility on our site.'

'If a parent smacked their child in the nursery we would immediately split the child from the parents. We would ask them why they felt the need to smack and explain the ramifications of their actions. We would check the child to see if there were any marks and make sure they were OK - we would react to it as a child protection issue.'

Q: As a parent, have you ever smacked your own children?

'I have tapped my children but it was more because they were in a dangerous situation and I have grabbed them back. I'm a talker, rather than resorting to physical violence.'

'I have four grown-up children and I smacked all of them. They were told once and if they didn't respond they would get a smack on the hand. I didn't feel guilty.'

'I have smacked my children a few times and felt awful afterwards.'

Q: Do parents ask your advice on how to discipline their children?

'We will always give advice on the non-smacking route, but not many parents ask us.'

'When parents smack it is the last resort. We advise parents to move their child on to a cushion or chair for some "time out" for a few minutes. The child then has a chance to think what they have done and the parent has time to calm themselves too. Then the child is allowed to go back and play.'

'One parents of a child with ADHD used to smack but we have helped her to develop other discipline methods and she is coping much better. She has said she now enjoys being with him a lot more.'

'We talk through behaviour management with parents and using praise as well as telling children off. When parents are coping on their own they can become easily frazzled, so we give techniques on how to respond to both inappropriate and good behaviour so they can get the balance right.'

'We say you do not have to use physical force on young children. It is not necessary at all. Most children will respond to a very firm no.'

Q: Do you think opinions on smacking have changed over the years?

'I was brought up being smacked and I'm all right. I feel that children used to be more disciplined than they are now.'

'Parents are frightened about disciplining their children, and confused. They do not know what they can and can't do. The law has got into a muddle over smacking.'

'Smacking is now very much frowned upon and people would react if they saw an adult smacking a child.'

'It's said smacking lets one devil out and two in - the behaviour gets worse if you smack.'

'Some parents still do not class smacking as violence but as discipline. But if the child is shown violence then they too can think it's OK to hit others.'

'I have a club at a secondary school and the teachers there have told me that children go into school and report their parents for having smacked them. The school then has to call social services. Teachers say to me that it is ludicrous.'

'Things have changed and not as many parents smack their children. I don't often see children being smacked in public any more - there is more of a "mental smack" in the way they speak to the child.'

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By Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Children's Commissioner for England

As a parent myself, I recognise that parenting is sometimes a difficult job - indeed it is often the hardest of jobs - and that there is a need for help in finding positive and effective forms of setting boundaries that lead to long-term improvements in a child's behaviour.

As it stands, children are the only people in this country who can still be hit lawfully - that cannot be right and it is vital that we address this as soon as possible.

In some circumstances, the law allows parents to fall back on automatic catch-all defences, such as 'reasonable punishment' and 'justifiable assault', to acts of common assault against their children.

But acts of assault can, and do, breed fear and intimidation, and such negative emotions should never be a part of a loving and nurturing parent-to-child relationship. At 11 MILLION, we are quite clear - children should be free from inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, as guaranteed by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

In its last report on the UK (2002), the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded that the UK law on the physical punishment of children was in breach of the child's right to human dignity, physical integrity and equal protection.

I am concerned that section 58 of the Children's Act 2004 continues to breach the United Convention on the Rights of the Child by failing to provide children with equal protection under the law on common assault.

There are other countries where children are offered this protection from common assault, including Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Germany and New Zealand.

It is vital this country follows suit so that legislation. A change of law alone would not, of course, be enough. Alongside it should be a large-scale public education campaign, and significant investment in promoting positive parenting and the highlighting of the alternatives to physical punishment.

In schools, nurseries and other settings, children do, rightly, receive protection from assault.

We are simply seeking that this right is extended so that they receive the same protection in the home, a place where, above all others, they should expect to feel safe and secure.


- Children's Commissioner's office, www.11million.org.uk

- Campaign against smacking and for children to have equal protection from assualt, www.childrenareunbeatable.org.uk.

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