A Letter to The Ombudsman for Children
and advice how to help bring about positive change for the children of France

Olivier Maurel
France, November 30, 2004

Translated from the French original by Tom Johnson


I am taking the liberty of writing to you following the publication in Famili magazine of certain remarks you made about spanking. I know that journalists sometimes twist the words of people they interview, but if you in fact said what the article reports, I have to say I'm very distressed, especially considering your position as ombudsman for children.

According to the reporter, you said that "a law would be counterproductive because public opinion is not ready." Do you really think the death penalty would have been abolished if we had waited for the public to come around? It was the abolition of it under law that gradually led the majority in France to accept its disappearance. Likewise, in Sweden, proscriptive law has in the space of a few years reduced the ranks of those who advocate child-raising violence to a weak minority. Why? A sentence from Alice Miller provides the answer: "We cannot free ourselves from an evil without first naming and judging it as an evil."

As long as we reject abolition and continue to allow or even advocate spanking (which is what you do when you say that a spanking attended by a sense of alarm is the only way to make a child understand that he has crossed a line), it will be tacitly understood in the public's mind that it is perfectly legitimate to hit children as one sees fit, including strokes of a cane and belt-whipping in families where that is the traditional mode.

You seem to be unaware of the continuity that exists between the swat, the slap, the spanking, and other more violent means of making children obey. Continuity in the escalation of violence from the moment when, as we've started to hit, the child steels himself and reacts by saying, "Didn't hurt!" Continuity in the fact that from the moment the right to hit children becomes an accepted principle (contrary to the basic principle of all religions and morality: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you), it's like the dam protecting children from violence has cracked open. As long as we tolerate child-raising violence, even at its mildest, the future will be bright for child abuse.

Neither do you seem to realize that for 80-90%, the practice of child-hitting has been instilled at a very young age, when they received their first spankings or slaps. This practice is etched in the deepest part of their emotional brain and is tied to the respect they have for their parents. When they hit, it is their own parents who are hitting through them. If no other authority figure tells them very plainly in no uncertain terms that nobody ever has the right to hit children, in any form whatsoever, the parental authority which they've internalized will always carry the day, along with child-raising violence.

Finally, when you say, after having justified certain spankings, that a child needs both love and limits, this can only be understood to mean "Without spanking, it's impossible to set limits." In fact, there are 1,001 ways to set limits for children without hitting them. It does take a little resourcefulness, which cannot be fully engaged as long as physical blows are deemed legitimate.

As for the "invisible violence" that you consider more serious than spankings, let me say that no one recommends to parents that they insult and humiliate their children, or that they use "cruel words" or give them nicknames--whereas I can name you several recent books by child care professionals who still recommend slapping and spanking. Starting with Christine Brunet, also quoted in the Famili article, as well as yourself with respect to "alarm-based spankings."

In closing, let me remind you what the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child has called upon states to do:

The Committee defends the right to a childhood of physical integrity "without exception for any degree of violence toward children." We must "implement paragraph 1 of Article 19 of the Convention to the letter . . . Even limited resort to physical force, a light slap for example, can be the the first step down the path to veritable abuse." As a Committee member pointed out to the delegate from Great Britain, "To make an analogy, nobody would dare to argue for allowing a 'reasonable level' of violence with respect to women . . . What we ought to do is ban corporal punishment completely" as well as "other humilating forms of discipline which happen too often within the family, at school, or in other institutions and which are not compatible with the Convention . . . The methods used to teach children should exclude all injurious, brutal, disrespectful or degrading treatment, as well as every type of humiliation or exploitation."

With this "innovative approach to combatting the violence suffered by children, the Convention and the Committee offer new hope of reducing numerous forms of adult violence that put people's safety at risk." Essentially, the hope is to "break the cycle of violence the often perpetuates itself from generation to generation in the name of tradition and custom. . . . If society wants to solve the problem of violence", including political violence given that "children subjected to such treatment don't often make good citizens . . . necessary action should be undertaken as soon as possible within the family", as a matter of promoting "an ethic of non-violence." It is a question of "educating parents to raise their children without violence and in a spirit of communication and mutual respect".

To reach this objective, perfectly clear statutes must be established. "In countries where the law clearly bans corporal punishment, it sends a message to children . . . This prohibition has not caused the legal system to be flooded with police reports and court proceedings, but it has served to educate parents . . . Legislation plays a catalyzing role in uprooting the notion that corporal punishment is something normal".

In my mind, it would be more appropriate for the children's ombudsman to echo these demands rather than the lazy-minded quick fixes to which public opinion adheres.

Sincerely and respectfully yours,
Olivier Maurel

Oliver Maurel explains how you can help bring about positive change for the children of France

November 2004


In France, we have the strange privilege of having an "Ombudsman for Children," a government office which Lionel Jospin created, who has declined to outlaw the infliction of corporal punishment on children at home as it already has been at school. Her chief argument: Such a measure would be counterproductive and premature because public opinion and policy are not ready for it.

If this line of reasoning had been followed with respect to capital punishment or speed limits, we'd still be chopping off people's heads in France, and the number of automobile accidents would have continued to mount.

In countries where this prohibition has been passed, the number of parents in favor of smacking has quickly dropped. So if I may, I suggest taking some small action aimed at getting the ombudsman for children, Claire Brisset, to realize that

  • many parents do not share her point of view
  • many are in favor of passing a law to protect children from all forms of physical punishment (as adults have been for a long time)
  • she would be doing more to defend children by calling for the passage of such a law than by taking up for public opinion and elected leaders who have not yet understood the need for it.

This action can take various forms depending on how much time you have available and how personalized a statement you would like to make.

The first and quickest option: Drop a brief line to Mme. Brisset, whether by post or on her website (listed below), telling her that you wish child-raising violence in France to be outlawed. (If you like, you can refer to the letter below which I sent her November 23.) She has already received several like comments from members of a discussion group.

Option two: You can copy my letter and send it to her with a note of approval.

Option three: Compose a letter of your own.

Mailing address of the Ombudsman for Children (Défenseur des enfants) :

Claire Brisset,
104 Bd Auguste Blanqui,
75013 Paris

Website : www.defenseurdesenfants.fr

The site includes a Contact page set up for submitting case reports to the Ombudsman for Children--the case of children subjected to ordinary child-raising violence, for example. So in the space provided for "child whose rights have not been respected" ("Enfant dont le droit n'est pas respecté"), it would be fitting to enter something like "the 85% of children who are victims of slaps, spanking, and other common forms of violent upbringing." You can also put several first names followed by ellipses in the "child's first name" field.

If after doing this you could take the time to let me know about your effort, or perhaps your questions, objections, and suggestions, thank you in advance. And additional thanks to those who suggest these actions to their friends and contacts.

Oliver Maurel

Olivier Maurel is author of La Fessée: 100 questions-réponses sur les châtiments corporels (Tressan: éditions La Plage), whose updated and expanded edition has recently been released.



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