STOPPING PARENTS smacking their children is key to ridding Scotland of its reputation as one of the most violent countries in western Europe, says one of Scotland's senior policemen.
Detective Chief Superintendent John Carnochan, head of the police's violence reduction unit, was speaking at a conference on corporal punishment issues, as new figures from ChildLine Scotland revealed that an estimated 3,600 distressed children called its helpline last year after suffering physical abuse. This makes it the second most common problem the charity dealt with. It received about 9,200 calls on bullying.
Kathleen Marshall, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, who organised the conference, said: "It is unbelievable that in the 21st century, Scots law still allows 'justifiable assault' on children. There needs to be a complete removal of this defence."
Superintendent Carnochan agreed that physically punishing children was wrong. It normalised violence, he argued, and stopped children from developing the skills they need to function successfully.
However, unlike Mrs Marshall, he did not advocate a change in the law. "If a young person is born into a violent house where all they learn is aggression and where the way to deal with conflict is aggression, they have no empathy. Their response is never going to be to discuss or compromise or negotiate," he said.
Parents, he said, had to be given the tools to raise their children without resorting to violence. A nationwide parenting programme that targeted vulnerable parents, a Scottish parenting strategy and longer maternity leave would all be steps in the right direction, he said.
"It is a parent's responsibility to prepare their children for life," he continued. "That means furnishing them with the necessary soft skills: the ability to negotiate, compromise and respect others."
More would have to be done to change attitudes towards violence in Scotland before smacking could be banned, he argued. "We have two people murdered every weekend in Glasgow. That's just what happens, that's normality."
ChildLine Scotland believes abuse and bullying are intrinsically linked.
Children who are abused frequently go on to become abusers, it says.
"Bullying is the most talked about issue, but really there has to be a tie between the two," said Elaine Chalmers, of the charity.
"Words that children use when they call us are words around being battered, hit, smacked, thumped. And the feelings around that are of helplessness, humiliation, hurt, anxiety and low self-esteem."
A change in legislation that outlawed smacking would bring about a change in attitude, ChildLine Scotland argues - much like the smoking ban in public places.
In Sweden, about a third of the population were still in favour of parents being allowed to hit their children when it was banned in 1979. But by 1994, support for smacking had dwindled to 11 per cent.
"When parents do smack, it's not the measured application of a final sanction. They lose their rag," said Simon Anderson, who took part in research involving 692 Scottish parents and their approaches to discipline in 2002.
The research, which was commissioned by the Scottish Executive, also found that more than half of parents felt guilty or sorry afterwards.
"Nobody feels good about it and people would like to parent differently,"
concluded Mr Anderson.
It is, however, an emotive issue. Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Children's Commissioner for England, said: "Of all our correspondence, the most poisonous and vitriolic is objecting to our opposition to the physical punishment of children."