A smack in the eye for progress

21st April 2000 at 01:00
EASTER is a time for reflection, not least about how we regard our fellow human beings. Until the middle of the 19th century children were thought of as unformed adults, a reservoir of labour waiting to be tapped. Later, the need to protect and nourish physical well-being was recognised, but emotional development continued to be disregarded.

It took the development of child psychology and the traumas of the Second World War for light to be shed on the needs of the whole child. In educational terms the Primary Memorandum of 1965 and the attention later given in the 1970s to special needs were turning points.

We think we know better now. But will our confident assumptions soon seem as benighted as those we ridicule from the recent past? Te charity Save the Children thinks so (page five) in challenging the widely held belief that parents have a right physically to chastise their offspring (provided it is not at the level of brutality acceptable only a generation or two ago). The Swedes have abolished corporal punishment, and are reportedly happy with the results.

Yet Jim Wallace, the Justice Minister, says that parents should retain the discretion to administer a well-timed smack. True, there is no general support for a total ban and politicians run ahead of the people at their peril. But they also have a duty to lead. With benefit of hindsight will the Executive be seen to have shirked the challenge and colluded in perpetuating outmoded ways of treating children?

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