Like any new parent, I had plenty of worries about fatherhood. Being a dad with a physical disability added an extra layer of worry on top of your garden variety new parent concerns like will they love me? and will I ever know what I’m doing?.
Thankfully, eighteen months in to parenthood, my worries have proven to be, if not entirely unfounded then at least grossly exagerrated.
I worried that not being able to do much of the physical lifting and carrying would create a distance between us, but that has never been the case. We’re as thick as thieves and now she’s able to walk and do much more on her own, it’s much less of an issue anyway.
But there’s one area where I do still have a worry: discipline.
I’ve never been much of a disciplinarian. Sure, I tell the cat off every now and again, but as someone who steers naturally towards conflict avoidance, telling anyone off has never been my style. Even in the quasi-management roll of my office day job I’m very much the good cop to a non-existent bad cop — raising my voice and laying down the law just isn’t in my skillset.
Most of the time that’s fine. Everyone at my job is an adult who is choosing to be there, frankly, I shouldn’t have to tell anyone off.
With a child, though, it’s a bit different.
I still don’t want to shout, but I had hoped I might develop a stern-telling-off voice my daughter would respect. The problem is whenever my toddler does act out I often find that my involuntary response is laughter: toddlers are, unfortunately for me, inherently funny.
So if I don’t have the option of verbal discipline, what other options are open to me?
Shockingly, corporal punishment — usually smacking or spanking, to you and me — would be one, legally speaking.
To be clear: it’s not something I have or will ever consider, but I was surprised to find that it’s legal in most of the UK. Scotland has become the first part of the UK to ban physical punishment for those under 16, while Wales’ law against it comes into force in 2022. In England (where I live) and Northern Ireland, though, it remains legal, with little to suggest any ban coming over the horizon. In fact, as recently as last February, the government said that were “no plans” for a ban.
At the time, Education Minister Michelle Donelan wrote:
“The government does not wish to interfere in how loving families bring up their children. Legislation already exists to ban the beating of children by their parents”.
Who still smacks their children anyway?
You may think that smacking isn’t all that widespread anyway, an old fashioned practice that will naturally die out with new generations of parents using modern parenting methods. Certainly, I thought that. My wife and I don’t condone smacking and (at least as far as we know) none of the parents among our peer group discipline their children with corporal punishment either.
The truth is it might be more common than you realise. A 2015 study from a group of Scottish children’s charities found that between 70% and 80% of parents in the UK had used physical punishment on their children. A UNICEF report from the previous year found that 80% of children across the world are or had been subjected to violent punishment in the home.
Even if you and your parental peers don’t smack your children, chances are you know someone in your life who supports it. Often this seems to be the older generation, with comments in the spirit of: “I was smacked as a child and I turned out fine!” frequently heard.
But do kids who are smacked really turn out fine?
“Adverse childhood experience”
That’s the description of a group of American psychiatrists who claimed that smacking resulted in “adult mental health impairment” and that, like child neglect, a parent who punishes their child with violence should wind up in prison.
The New Scientist has written about analysis of over 200 studies on the effects of smacking. Unsurprisingly, the outcomes aren’t good for anyone:
“They show that parents who smack their children are unsurprisingly less likely to have a good relationship with them. And children who are spanked are more likely to experience emotional and physical abuse and neglect.
These studies also find that smacked children are more likely to go on to be aggressive themselves — initially with their peers, and later with their own children and partners. People who were smacked as children are also at a higher risk of having low self-esteem, depression or alcohol dependency.”
So yeah, maybe kids who are smacked don’t “turn out fine” after all.
Smacking is, thankfully, banned elsewhere in the world. Sweden was the first to do so, with a ban in 1979 (which still seems quite recent!) with over 50 countries having followed suit since.
I hope that the rest of the UK will follow the lead of Scotland and Wales soon. In the meantime, I’ll worry less about not being a staunch disciplinarian father. I would rather have a good relationship with a daughter who, maybe, isn’t too afraid of me to bend the rules once in a while.