Most of us enter parenthood, one of the most difficult and important tasks in our lives, with no formal training or instruction. The only experience we have of it comes from our own childhood, witnessing the parenting efforts of our own parents, whether good or bad. Otherwise, we simply muddle along, doing what we believe to be right.
That, it seems, was the case for the father in a child care case that made the headlines in several national newspapers last week. Those headlines were along the lines that the father had had his children taken away from him because he believed he had the right to smack them.
Now, I don’t want to get into the child smacking debate. Suffice to say that in this country it is unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’. Whether a smack amounts to reasonable punishment will depend upon the circumstances, including the age of the child and the nature of the smack. Physical punishment will be considered unreasonable if it leaves a mark on the child, or if the child is hit by an implement such as a cane.
Returning to the case, the father had told the court on more than one occasion that he believed in smacking children by way of discipline, that he did so on the bottom, leg and arm and that he used his hand causing red marks on their bodies which, according to him, ‘did not last long.’ He clearly did not think that he was doing anything wrong and appeared to believe that the children benefitted from being smacked.
There is, of course, more to the case than just the issue of the father smacking the children, but the court found that the father’s behaviour was inappropriate. More importantly, the father was unable or unwilling to acknowledge this and therefore not prepared to change. In all of the circumstances the court found that the welfare of the child would be best served if she were to live with her maternal uncle, with whom her brother had already been placed.
I’m not for one moment saying that I condone the behaviour of the father in this case, but I do have sympathy for parents who genuinely get things wrong. As I said at the outset, no one tells us how to be parents and it is quite possible to do the wrong thing whilst having the best of intentions. It is also the case that there is no one best way of bringing up a child – there are many different approaches that are equally valid and do not cross the line into abuse.
Of course, the secret is to know just where that line is. But this is not necessarily easy, particularly if (for example) your own parents used corporal punishment against you.
Which brings me to another point. Ideas as to what is right and wrong when it comes to bringing up children are constantly changing. When I was a child physical punishment was commonplace, and not just by parents – it also happened regularly at school (whilst never a victim of it, I remember the cane that stood in the corner of my Headmaster’s room). If the only thing that a parent can go on is the behaviour of their parents, then it is no surprise that sometimes out of date values are still held.
Our children are taught many things at school, a lot of which will be quite superfluous to them in later life. Few, however, are given any guidance on how to be parents, a task that most of them will face and one which is of such vital importance. Perhaps parenting skills might be a useful addition to the compulsory curriculum?
The full judgment, Rotherham Borough Metropolitan Council v L and Others, can be read here.
Image by Tim Ellis via Flickr