Do rioters just need a good smack?

First published in Huffington Post

For those of you who are still wondering what was really behind those riots that shocked the nation last summer, we now have a new explanation. It’s nothing to do with the gaping ‘social deficit’ described by David Cameron, or a “feral underclass” of state dependents, described by Kenneth Clarke, secretary of state for justice. No, it was smacking, or rather the absence of smacking that caused it all.

So says David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, where it all started. Well, at least that is what he was initially reported as saying. To be fair he makes some very important points that have been conspicuous by their absence until now. People “no longer feel sovereign in their own homes” he argues, as the state invites itself in. The Children Act of 2004 removed the right of parents to impose “reasonable chastisement” on their children, instead barring them from inflicting anything that might result in a “reddening of the skin”. For many of his constituents, he says with an eye for the racial-bias in this formulation, “this isn’t really an issue”.

The anti-smacking lobby have been out in force, chastising those who dare to suggest that a smack is just a smack. While a spokesman for the NSPCC thinks Lammy’s comments “misleading and unhelpful” and argues for a ban just to clear up any ambiguity; according to Professor Terence Stephenson of the Royal College of Paediatrics “all too often today’s smack becomes tomorrow’s punch.” Why? Because he says so. Nevertheless, the more thoughtful of Lammy’s critics at least understand what lurks behind the smacking debate. Dreda Say Mitchell, in the Guardian‘s Comment is Free, argues “it’s the shying away from adult responsibilities that’s one of the real causes of antisocial behaviour in children.”

“Corporal punishment has been bubbling under the parenting debate for a while” says Zoe Williams“and, as it bursts out, it has taken the liberal left by surprise.” As one of its number, she goes on to ask where should the line be drawn then, “Significant bruising? Hairline fractures?” Which rather misses the point. It’s not where the line is drawn so much as who draws it.

While Lammy’s comments are a welcome challenge to a prevailing orthodoxy that seeks to deny parents their autonomy vis-à-vis the state, pointing to the very different experiences of working class families subject to its interventions; there is something profoundly unsatisfactory about the terms of the debate. It’s hard to know who to despair of the most, the meddling medics and so-called liberals who presume to know better than parents how to raise their children; or the politicians and commentariat who can’t seem to get beyond such mundane matters. Yes, adult authority is in crisis and the anti-smackers could do with a well deserved slap for doing their bit to undermine it. But, in itself, whether or not parents smack their children tells us precisely nothing about the riots.

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