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British Parents Consider Whether to Spare the Rod

European Court rules caning a violation of boy's human rights

Gillian Fowler, mother of three, says if she had "to resort to violence" to discipline her children, she would feel she'd failed.

Even when sorely tempted, she no longer even smacks them, as she did occasionally when they were younger. (In Britain, "smack" means a sharp slap typically given with the palm of the hand to a child's hand.)

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Today Mrs. Fowler views smacking as "an easy option - rather than sitting down and reasoning with the child. "And," she says, "it doesn't actually change the behavior."

Attitudes about physical punishment as a way to discipline children have begun to change. And debate in Britain over the issue was highlighted this past week by the European Court of Human Rights.

Under a 130-year-old British law that permits "reasonable chastisement," a British court initially ruled that a stepfather who repeatedly punished his nine-year-old by beating him with a garden cane was within his legal rights. But the case was appealed to the European Court, which ruled that the boy's human rights were violated. The boy, now 14, was awarded 10,000 ($16,900) in damages and 20,000 ($33,800) in legal fees.

Health Minister Paul Boeteng, calling this "a common sense decision," promised a consultation paper to "clarify the law. This will reflect the view that violence against children is unacceptable and [will] promote better protection for children...." But Mr. Boeteng's statement ended with a qualifying clause disappointing to campaigners determined to outlaw all forms of corporal punishment by parents, including smacking.

That clause reads: "without getting in the way of normal family life" - a reference to Boeteng's earlier statement that the "overwhelming majority of parents know the difference between smacking and beating. They know how to ensure good social behavior in a loving and caring way. We respect that right."

Research by Britain's Department of Health indicates that today almost 25 percent of seven-year-olds had experienced "severe" punishment by mothers, and that 75 percent of mothers of one-year-old infants interviewed admitted smacking their babies in the first year.

Some parents - and many child-protection organizations - say this form of discipline is outdated. Eight other European countries already outlaw corporal punishment by parents, even smacking.

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But some parents argue the right to chastise their children physically.

Some advocate not only hand-smacking, but the use of instruments like "wooden spoons and slippers"- though only used, as Norman Wells of Families for Discipline puts it, "in a caring and responsible way." Mr. Wells and his wife have four children he describes as happy, loved, and well trained. He, and parents interviewed who agree with him, oppose government promises to "clarify the law." One father says: "They should keep their nose out."

Other parents, such as Fowler, see a change in their own attitudes. As a young teacher in a low-income area of Glasgow, she sometimes used the then-legal strap to discipline her students. She also occasionally, reluctantly she says, smacked her own children.

Now, she and her husband, Dougie, find withholding allowance money effective in dealing with their teenage children. With their 10-year-old son, "grounding" for a day works well.

Today, Fowler trains professional child-care workers. It was an experience with her students that set her thinking. She invited a representative of End Physical Punishment of Children (EPOCH) to talk to them.

All 15 students, parents themselves, disagreed with the EPOCH advocate. Agreeing they should not physically punish children in their professional care, they strongly argued their right to do so as parents. They were smacked as children. It had done them no harm.

In the course of her work, Fowler observes mothers behaving as if they believe their child "is their belonging, to do with as they wish." Some "knock their children about their heads and think nothing of it." So she favors legislation "against people who don't know better. A law might seem heavy-handed, but may be needed for children's protection."

Roslyn and Alistair Donaldson have three children who are (on the whole) well-behaved. But if they do something bad or unsafe she gives them a slap on the hand or bottom. Just lashing out is "wrong," she says. "I don't agree with smacking, really. But I wouldn't like it banned completely."

Mrs. Donaldson is concerned that if it were illegal, children might call a child-protection agency after a smack, claiming "they have been beaten up" - also a major concern of Wells of Families for Discipline.

He differentiates between "a good smack and a bad smack." A good one is administered "in love, not frustration." He also denies that physical punishment automatically escalates, as opponents claim. He says it should lessen as children grow older. He would be very concerned, he says, if the government legislated against "the use of objects - safe objects - in caring, controlled, responsible ways."

But EPOCH founder Peter Newell says: "Our biggest problem is the misconception that law means prosecution." EPOCH's aim is "prevention" of child abuse, but not prosecution of "trivial" smacking - a law giving children the same protection on assault that adults have. This he sees as "the last stage of a long process of reform.

"It's ironic," he says, "that children, smaller and more vulnerable than the rest of us, should have had to wait till last."

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