Scots want to take whack out of parental spanking

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

May 14, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- A boy about 6 gouges a sapling in Hyde Park, stripping away its bark. Up steps his father. Whack! Right on the bottom.

There are tears, and Daddy says to a woman who observed the scene, "That's what I call child abuse," pointing to the tree his child had been abusing.

Should the man be arrested? Some would say yes, those who see the smack on the bottom of an errant child as the certain prelude to more serious abuse.

Those of this persuasion have won some sympathy with the Scottish Law Commission, a group of jurists whose job is to propose new laws in Scotland, the updating of existing ones, and the expunging of irrelevant ones. The commission has asked the House of Commons to curb sharply the rights of Scottish parents to use corporal punishment on their children.

The commission did not urge the total criminalization of parental spanking, as had been expected. Rather, it asked Parliament to "clarify and limit" the degree of corporal punishment parents could use. Using belts, for instance, should be outlawed, the commission said.

Spanking is already a criminal offense in the United Kingdom by teachers, policemen and any non-relative involved in child care.

There are law commissions in England, Scotland and Wales. The Scottish commission is very prestigious and what it proposes often goes into English law.

Why is such a law thought necessary?

According to Penelope Leach, "spanking is just too much of a national habit." She is the parent education coordinator of a charity organization called EPOCH, for End Physical Punishment Children.

Spanking, she says, "is something taken for granted in this country. It is the last hangover of the idea that this is a legitimate means of exercising authority."

And there is evidence it is widespread. A study of 700 families carried out at the University of Nottingham in 1985, then followed up in 1990, indicated that 90 percent of British parents spank their children. "This has been confirmed by later polls," said Ms. Leach.

Ms. Leach believes a punitive law would encourage a change in attitude toward children and would make parents aware that "we have a responsibility to children rather than ownership of them."

"They are not dogs," she said, "though British people hit their dogsless than their children."

Ms. Leach is convinced there is a connection between the spanking of children and eventual child abuse. "The overwhelming number of studies show it," she says.

Not everybody agrees, although she does seem to be swimming with the tide. Several European countries have made parental spanking a crime. Sweden was the first, in 1979. Denmark, Finland, Austria and Norway followed. Germany is considering it.

Despite the seriousness with which recommendations by the Scottish Law Commission are received, it is not likely England will go along this time.

The Conservative government does not readily pass laws that intrude into family life, although certainly wife beating and child abuse are crimes. Spanking is just not everywhere regarded with the same degree of horror.

According to Paddy Feeny, spokesman for the Department of Health, the government "does not approve of the philosophy" behind the proposal. "It would drive a wedge between the parent-and-child relationship," he said. "It would also be impossible to enforce without having a nation of informers."

In 1989, the government declined to include in the Children's Act a measure restricting parental rights to use corporal punishment for the same reasons it gives today: It is too intrusive, impossible to enforce, and there are already "remedies in the law" to protect children from serious abuse.

Also, there are those vehemently opposed to it. Stephen Green, for instance. He speaks for the Conservative Family Campaign, which he describes as a Conservative Party think tank whose purpose is to advance traditional family issues before Parliament.

To him, trying to prevent parents from spanking their children is a "batty" idea, an attempt by its backers "to force their middle-class angst on all the rest of us."

"Nobody likes to spank their kids," he said. "I don't like to spank mine. But this [decision] must remain with the parents

themselves."

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