There are few things that can make the "tolerant" become intolerant than the mere mention of smacking. Utter the word "smack", make even a suggestion that it should perhaps not be seen as a form of child abuse, and enlightened, caring, softly-spoken liberals become red-faced with rage. Whether you would personally smack your child or not, this excessive over-reaction suggests that there is something rather strange about the smacking "debate".
Speaking at an event in Glasgow last month, I dared to raise the smacking question and suggested that, for parents with small children who misbehave in public, it is hard to know what to do any more as smacking has become such a problematic issue. In the pub afterwards, a social worker told me that if he saw me smacking my children in a supermarket, he would smack me!
As it happens, I was not advocating smacking but merely pointing out that the issue had become overly-confused and problematised. The strange thing is that there is no "smacking debate" as such. One or two public figures may "admit" to having smacked, often with an apologetic tone, but few actively advocate or promote smacking. Indeed, rather bizarrely, smacking is associated with being right wing, or at least with being a bit of a Neanderthal. This is all the more peculiar, given the fact that almost 85 per cent of 1,000 adults polled in 2004 agreed that "parents should sometimes be allowed to smack their children".
As with many other issues today, what is deemed to be right or the "correct" way of behaving (the "tolerant" way) does not actually match the reality of people's lives. The vast majority, it seems, would consider smacking their child, but arguably this same majority would be self- conscious about doing so in front of others. Why is this?
First, we are less of a "public" today and there are few if any genuine collectively-formed opinions that frame the way issues are understood. Second, in part, because we are more distant from one another, we are also less trusting of other people. The result of this is that, while we may think smacking is OK for us as individuals, we are less sure if we would trust other adults to smack their children.
Most importantly, with the decline of a public voice, experts have filled the vacuum with their own suspicious ideology - an outlook that further encourages a sense of anxiety and doubt among the public.
The issue of "child abuse" at one level is commonly understood as an extreme act, but this has been confused with the expanding definition given to it by child-care professionals. Today, parents relate to their children, in part, through new expert-constructed "norms" that have turned the most everyday things, like smacking, into an issue of "power and abuse".
Smacking has arguably declined as a form of discipline: with more time on our hands and a more child-focused family arrangement, this is perhaps to be expected, and even a positive thing. Unfortunately, this more "natural" development of parenting styles is simply confused by the anti-smackers who turn various forms of child discipline into acts of abuse and further help to spread distrust within an already-fragmented society.
Stuart Waiton is director of Generation YouthIssues.org.