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A slap in the face isn't good enough

It is wrong to smack children. To write this seems banal. Where's the interest in being against sin? But Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell has just said that it's not wrong, and that the Government will "vigorously defend" parents' right to wallop their children whenever they think fit, and that no European court is going to push us around when it comes to bringing up our children.

So maybe the banal needs to be stated all over again. Because we do so like to wallop - in supermarkets, on the high street; even more in the privacy of our own homes. And never, as far as I can see, in the restrained this-is-only-for-your-own-good way so prized by Tory politicians, but almost always in a state of simmering rage.

Or maybe I'm just talking about myself, because I hit all my children when they were younger, and always in this way. And I mean hit. Not smacked, slapped, clipped, disciplined or chastised. But hit. On the legs and bottom. On the back. Once, shamingly, even on the face.

I blush to say this, but the memory of that innocent toddler's cheek with its dreadful white fingermarks outlined in red is too vivid to avoid. And every time I did it, I knew, the very minute it had happened, that it was wrong: that no good could ever come of it, and that all I was doing was laying down sedimentary layers of fear, distrust and future violence.

And I was right, because the results are already showing - in wary individuals who are quick to absent themselves from any confrontation, and whose fists will fly in the heat of sibling quarrels. Smacking is bullying. I'd like to think that I stopped because my children grew older and less exasperating, but I know it's more likely that it was because they grew bigger and more sentient and I couldn't get away with it any longer.

Of course, all this is relative. On the scale of things, our family would be considered happy and reasonably well adjusted. But what makes my blood run cold is this: if this is what can go on in a relatively stable family such as ours, what on earth must happen behind the doors of more stressed and chaotic households?

The Commission on Children and Violence, set up in the wake of the murder of James Bulger in 1993, provided a chilling answer. It took evidence from 400 organisations and 500 children, and found that one in six children experience violent punishment, often with belts and canes. The Childline charity said it heard of "terrible, terrible incidents described to us by children of smacking that escalates".

Yet many parents continue to think this kind of thing is a badge of office. When a four-year-old Kidderminster boy was caught burgling a house earlier this month, his mother said she "smacked him with a belt" when he was brought home, adding "I don't think he will do anything like that again". There are causal relationships here, but almost certainly not the ones she imagines.

No one can ever blame anyone else for their own actions, but I feel sure our national attitude towards children must encourage this punitive climate. I've lived on four continents, and travelled in some of the richest and poorest areas of the world, but can think of nowhere where children are a more visible irritation. Once, when living abroad, I received a postcard from a friend who had just returned to the UK: "The local playground seems full of dysfunctional mothers dragging and slapping their children aroundI" We're only just starting to allow children into pubs; and we still scowl at them in restaurants, exclude them from conversations and admonish them in shops. We often seem to resent their very existence and, in response, children grow whiny, sullen and anti-social. Take British children to a child-friendly country such as Italy or Greece and they bloom like flowers in the casual, acknowledging warmth.

In this respect, our schools do better than the society they serve. For many thousands of children, school is their only sanctuary from smacks and slaps, and their teachers the only adults they know who seem even partly on their side. But, even here, something of our cultural contempt for children seeps through.

There is a tone of teacher's voice that I've learned to dread when visiting schools, particularly primary ones. Although intended to convey, I think, a kind of joshing, exasperated warmth, what actually comes over is a hectoring, superior impatience, designed to squash children down like bugs.

Tony Blair is right to join the chorus pointing out we have problems with our family values. He is right, too, to say that parents must be made more responsible for their children. How you do that, though, is another thing. Encouraging a culture that respects and enjoys children enough to want to bring them up with due care and attention is a truly complicated - and expensive - business.

Curfews and contracts are blunt instruments, but possibly a way of signalling change. Another would begin to make us all understand that smacking is, at its restrained best, a poor way to discipline children and, at its worst, a dreadful violation. It can be done.

There was a time when wife beating was seen as a husbandly right which no one should interfere with. Now it is unlawful and shocking. If it takes a law to change the climate on smacking, as even European countries have already decided it does, then so be it.

The International Conference on the Ending of Physical Punishment points out that these laws are aimed at changing attitudes, and have resulted in no increase in prosecutions of parents, but I fear we may be too wedded to violence to listen.

And with political leaders like Stephen Dorrell prepared to do battle for our British rights to smack, and spiritual leaders, like the former Chief Rabbi, Lord Jakobovits, urging us to heed the original Hebrew message from the Book of Proverbs - he who spare the rod, hates his son - it, unfortunately, isn't likely to happen.

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