Susie Lau ponders the changing rules of child discipline

·3-min read
 (Susie Lau)
(Susie Lau)

The touchiest of all parenting subjects has again reared its head as we once again wade into the debate of whether to finally and comprehensively ban the act of smacking children in England, following the recent ban in Wales and Scotland back in 2020.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has rejected calls for a ban, saying that the state should not be ‘nannying’ parents as they should be trusted to discipline their own children.

My fascination with a topic that elicits such a broad church of opinions borders on being ghoulish. Upon reading Zahawi’s comments, I gorged on some forums on Mumsnet, breaking my self-imposed vow never to be swayed on matters of parenting by zealous posters who overuse the wide grin emoji. From righteous ‘thou shalt not lay a finger on your child’ admonishing to the much-touted ‘smacking never did me any harm’, the question still centres so much around a parent’s prerogative, and it probably has reached the point where the state should intervene.

The truth is that often you become so frustrated and irrationally infuriated with your child’s behaviour that you get to a strange tipping point, where you find yourself unfurling. You grit your teeth, you reason and cajole tensely, you begin to raise your voice and then they look at you like you’ve gone too far. And at that point, it’s almost as if you have physically slapped them. It’s an uncomfortable watch to see the squirmy carer-child altercations on the 259 bus or adults’ mouths clenching on the Circle line as they start using the firm-but-harsh clipped voice to stop their kids felt tipping bum shapes onto the seats.

Taking the no-hands approach and adopting ‘the voice’, you’ll still catch people raising their eyebrows over why there’s this fracas between child and parent happening in front of them. And that only furthers the embarrassment which shames you into praying the tantrum decibel level remains low every time you walk out of the door.

My own parents and their friends and family had no such qualms, hence why I’m naturally invested in the debate. Casually bringing up the fact that half of the kids from Chinese school were chased around the house with feather dusters and that my mum repeatedly smacked my bottom for liberally smearing the walls with Pond’s cold cream is an instant conversation killer. It’s hard to defend the act of laying a hand on a child, but I can also empathise when a parent’s mind is warped beyond recognition from the fatigue of running a household and working long hours, and then being confronted by smears of a hard-earned personal pleasure on a wall that won’t recover.

By no means am I minimising or writing off my parents’ choice to use physical punishment and maybe the faded memories of those stinging slaps haven’t even begun to be resolved. In their retired state, and now able to comfortably afford a pot of Pond’s (if they still sell that), they would never think to lay their hands on Nico or for me to do the same. A black and white ban would be more than welcome so that line can be definitely drawn. That still doesn’t eliminate the inner doubts about the even greyer area that is the level below physical slapping. What does a time out look like? If you say their name in full, will that make them listen? When you give them that look, and use that voice, will they still turn around a say: ‘This is the worst day ever. I hate my life right now’? That’s a direct quote by the way.

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