Hitting people is wrong - and children are people too,
EPOCH is a new national organization which aims to end physical punishment of children by parents and other carers. Now that hitting has been almost eliminated in schools and child care institutions, it is time to end it in the home as well.
EPOCH hopes to achieve its aim through public education, research and legal reforms.
First and foremost EPOCH wants to see changes in attitudes to children; to see children recognized as people - and recognition that it is as wrong to hurt a child as it is to hurt another adult. Far from having a right or even a duty to hit children, parents have a right to information about non-violent ways of bringing up their children, and a duty to discipline them with their heads and hearts rather than with their hands or implements.
EPOCH will work with and for parents and other organization to promote non-violent, positive methods of bringing up children.
The law protects the rest of us from violence at the hands of anyone else. Why shouldn't it protect children too?
EPOCH believes that ending physical punishment will have many positive effects:
* children can only achieve their full potential when they are recognized as individual people with rights of their own;
* the current acceptance of physical punishment helps to cause more serious child abuse;
* even `light' physical punishment can unintentionally cause significant injuries to small children;
* children who are hit by their parents learn that violent solutions are acceptable and are more likely in turn to hit their own children. Violence breeds violence.
We mean any action which is meant to cause pain to a child, such as hitting, slapping, smacking, with a hand or with a slipper, strap, stick or other implement. We also include violent shaking and any kind of forcible imprisonment, such as being locked in a room or cupboard or tied in a cot.
What's so wrong with hitting children?
Better to ask "what's right about it?" Everybody agrees it is morally wrong to settle arguments between adult people with blows. But children are people too. Why should they of all people lack equal protection from all forms of violence - particularly when they are among the most vulnerable physically?
Physical punishments are not only morally wrong, they don't work either. A whack on the bottom may stop children for that moment. But it won't stop them doing the same thing later on because being hit does not teach them anything useful. It doesn't teach them how you want them to behave, and it doesn't teach them to try to please you. Research evidence shows that children who have been slapped or hit are usually so overwhelmed with anger and hurt feelings that they cannot remember what they were punished for.
But surely you need to use physical force to keep children safe?
There is all the difference in the world between using your strength to snatch a child away from a hot stove or prevent them running into a busy road, and intentionally causing pain as punishment.
Surely a tap on the legs doesn't count?
Yet it does. Lots of parents `tap' babies, but many, many more smack four year year-olds. That's because hitting doesn't work except to relieve parents' feelings. If you let yourself smack your toddler for fiddling with the TV, what can you do when the toddler fiddles again except smack again - harder? And what can you do with the five year-old who refuses to stay in their room to `cool off' except lock the door...?
But is the ordinary kind of smacking that goes on in loving homes worth all this fuss?
Yes it is - because violence really does breed violence and violence is a major problem in today's society. We are not saying that hitting at home is the only cause of that violence, but we are saying that ending hitting at home would help to reduce it. Children model a lot of their behaviour on their parents. Parents who use physical punishment are directly teaching their children that physical force is an acceptable way to get what you want. If we want less violent adults we have to bring them up believing that physical force is not acceptable.
But aren't ordinary physical punishment and child abuse two quite different things?
When serious cases of child abuse are investigated, they are frequently shown to have started with occasional smacks given in the name of discipline which gradually escalated into tragedies. Current acceptance of physical punishment causes a dangerous
confusion. Most of those responsible for seriously injuring children are found to have been physically punished in their childhood.
And even light blows can accidently cause serious injury to small children - eg `clips round the ear' have burst ear drums and permanently damaged hearing, and smacks catching a child off balance have led to falls and head injuries.
But chidlren need discipline; what should replace physical punishment?
EPOCH certainly doesn't argue against discipline, or against consistent limits for children. The best responses to bad behaviour are always directly linked to it: parents' disapproval, irritation or anger, the removal of the toy or playmate the child is hurting, or the ending of the game or meal which is being ruined for everyone else. Rewards work better than punishments for children, just as they do for adults. There are already many parents who don't hit their children in any circumstances, but certainly believe in discipline and limits. You don't spoil a child by not hitting them.
How can you expect parents under stress, suffering from family poverty, unemployment and lack of proper child care support not to hit their children?
EPOCH agrees that our society needs to do much more for those who bear the burden of child-rearing and it will support those campaigning for reforms. But there are no clear links between such social factors and the frequency or severity of hitting children. The fact is that while there continues to be confusion over what is acceptable, hitting children is likely to itself increase stress and violence within any family.
In any case, why should children and only children wait for equal protection from violence until we've sorted out these other major social ills?
If you stop parents hitting their children they'll resort to even worse forms of punishment - and what about emotional abuse anyway?
Obviously other kinds of punishment can be harmful too. We concentrate on physical punishment because its harmful effects have been clearly demonstrated, because it is very frequently used, is clearly defined and because children are the only people in our society who are not protected from it. Changing attitudes to physical punishment, and hence to children will discourage other harmful forms of punishment.
Won't every parent sometimes lose his or her temper and hit their child?
While hitting children remains as acceptable as it is today, the answer is probably `yes'. But do all adults sometimes lose their temper and hit their partner? No - because hitting other adults (or even pets) is beyond the pale. If hitting children was equally unacceptable, most parents would never do it and the few who sometimes did would regret it and try not to. That is all it would take to shift social attitudes towards a new respect for children as people.
Banning physical punishment - it does work
Over five million European children are already protected from all physcial punishment in their home as well as in institutions. Five European countries - Sweden (in 1979), Finland (in 1983), Denmark (in 1985), Norway (in 1987) and Austria (in 1989) have adopted laws which prohibit parents hitting their children. The purpose in each case has been educational; to change attitudes, not to punish parents. There are no criminal penalties attached to the bans. The reforms have not led to a rush of children taking their parents to court over physical punishment, and numbers of children taken into care in Sweden and the other Scandinavian countries are low and reducing.
`Children are entitled to care, security and a good upbringing. Children are to be treated with respect for their person and individuality and may not be subjected to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment'
-- Swedish Parenthood and Guardianship Code
In Sweden, school corporal punishment was outlawed in the fifties; in 1966 the legal provision confirming parents' right to use physcial punishment was dropped, and in 1979 a new law was
passed with little opposition, stating: `A child may not be subjected to physical punishment or other injurious or humiliating treatment'.
Opinion polls have shown a dramatic change in the attitudes of Swedish parents: between 1965 and 1981 the proportion believing that `physical punishment is sometimes necessary' reduced from 53 per cent to 26 per cent, and those believing that children should be raised without physcial punishment increased from 35 per cent to 70 per cent.
In 1985 the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe proposed, in a recommendation on family violence, that member states should `review their legislation on the power to punish children in order to limit or indeed prohibit corporal punishment, even if violation of such a prohibition does not necessarily entail a criminal penalty'. (Recommendation R(85)4)
The point of changing the law is to make sure everyone - including children - know that physical punishment is no longer acceptable. EPOCH believes such legal changes are necessary, but not enough; public education is also needed, and EPOCH hopes to help with this too.
The law and physical punishment in the UK
Parents have long-established common law rights to hit their children - provided the punishment is `moderate and reasonable' there used to be similar rights to beat wives, servants, and apprentices). Extreme forms of physical punishment can lead to prosecution, but the courts have been notoriously slow to protect children from even excessive punishment.
Section 1 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1933, which makes cruelty including assault, ill-treatment and neglect of children an offence, has a specific exemption allowing physical punishment. Section 1(7) states: `Nothing in this section shall be construed as affecting the right of any parent, teacher or other person having lawful control or charge of a child or young person to administer punishment to him'.
An early aim for EPOCH is to get this statutory endorsement repealed. But this would still leave parents with their common law rights to hit theri children; new legislation will be needed to remove these, along the lines of the Scandinavian reforms.
In 1987, a Council of Europe meeting including UK representatives on `Violence in the Family' recommended: `Corporal punishment of children by their parents should be strongly discouraged. In some countries it is illegal, and efforts should be made to see whether it cannot be banned in other countries'.
Corporal punishment in the penal system and in the armed forces has long been abolished, and in August 1987 the UK became the last European country to end school corporal punishment (but pupils in independent schools whose fees are being paid by their parents still remain unprotected). Abolition in all child care institutions has also been promised.
In 1981, the Government-appointed Children's Committee recommeded in a discussion document: `The United Kingdom should embark upon a progressive programme, governed by a specific time-scale, to eliminate the use of coporal punishment on children and young people'.
John and Elizabeth Newson's research at Nottingham University's Child Development Research Unit has found that 62 per cent of the random sample of 700 parents interviewed hit their one year-old child; even more hit their four year-old child - and seven per cent of these four year-olds are hit at least once a day.
By the age of seven, at least eight per cent are being hit once a day and a further 33 per cent not less than once a week, 22 per cent of seven your-olds receive corporal punishment with an implement, and 53 per cent have been threatened with an implement: thus three quarters of seven year-olds are either hit or threatened with implements (91 per cent of boys and 62 per cent of girls).
By the age of 11, 18 per cent (22 per cent of boys) are being hit once or more a week and 15 per cent of boys are being punished with an implement.
`The majority of British parents we have interviewed seem to believe that physical punishment is an inevitable and probably necessary aspect of ordinary child upbringing'
-- John and Elizabeth Newson
The Newsons' figures - based as they are on face-to-face interviews - must surely be underestimates. From their most recent interviews they indicate that `there is no reason to suppose that the extent of parental punishment has decreased across the board'. (A 1985 study found almost two-thirds of one-year-old babies being smacked).
EPOCH (End Physical Punishment of Children)
77 Holloway Road, London N7 8JZ
171 700 0627