So, how hard can we hit our children? So, how hard can we hit our children?
By Catherine Bennett
The Guardian, July 8, 2004

The newly adopted Lords' amendment on smacking will inspire many parents to examine their past conduct. Have we smacked our children enough? And if not, is it too late to start? Lord Lester's amendment, which prevailed over the Children are Unbeatable campaign to ban smacking, is designed to allow British parents to carry on hitting their children, as long as they don't do it too hard. Even as it criminalises those who use too much force, it presents the light-to-medium painful "loving tap" as such an effective, natural and legitimate part of the disciplinary repertoire, that there seems no reason not to take up child-hitting right away, even if there is no particular pretext, to make up for all those occasions in the past when a guilty child went unhit. It may feel right to apologise to your child, afterwards, for these early lapses in enforcement.

The challenge, for the novice smacker, is getting the pressure right. Too loving and soft, and your child may mistake condign punishment for a game, or - worse - for physical affection. Too much velocity, however, in the wrong place, and you may be charged with actual bodily harm (ABH) and go to prison. So how much force is appropriate?

The effect of the new law, the attorney-general Lord Goldsmith said, having explained why a total ban was unworkable, would be that "even minor assaults by a parent on a child, where grazes, scratches, abrasions, minor bruising, swelling, superficial cuts or a black eye are caused, will normally be charged as assault occasioning actual bodily harm". In case this seemed a little harsh, he added that "reddening of the skin where it is merely transitory will usually still be charged as common assault". Only when "the reddening subsists for hours or days", would a parent risk the more serious charge of ABH.

But this still left many ambiguities to be tested in the courts. How long can reddening last, and still be defined as "transitory"? Half an hour? Forty-five minutes? Or, on fair-skinned children, from say, 8am until lunchtime? And how much darker must pink get, before it is officially red? Does it cover the small pinpricks called "petechial haemorrhage"? Law-abiding parents might want to acquire a stopwatch, and start experimenting on their children now.

Some immediate guidance is available, however, from US religious websites. Just as resourceful American interrogators have invented all sorts of techniques for making their prisoners' lives insufferable, without breaching the terms of the Geneva convention, American parents have explored a range of physical punishments which will conform with holy writ - "Thou shalt beat him with the rod" - without coming to the attention of the social services. If their tone is a little pious for the secular, British disciplinarian, this pragmatic approach to punishment, calibrating the precise degrees of hurt and redness caused by various different implements, is fully in the spirit of Lord Goldsmith's guidance, as well as God's.

Like the Labour peers who saw no reason to discuss special protection for infants this week (perhaps because it would criminalise so many loving parents), the Christians Patrick and Elizabeth Johnston are happy to start hitting early: "if dogs can be trained to sit and roll over, then your children can be trained to obey your word - even before they learn to speak!" Their website, God's Plan for the Family, is full of practical hints on how to escape prosecution: "A spanking given without anger should not cause bruising, but it can, especially with children who have had aspirin recently or who have a platelet abnormality. Almost all spankings will cause a brief red mark on the skin, especially on fair-skinned children. Be sensitive to this, and don't let your child out in public in shorts if there are red marks on the child's legs."

Or try something new. Hit your child less heavily, but more often: the amendment is not much impressed by "mere emotions such as fear, distress or panic". Or administer your government-approved "minor disciplinary smacks" in an unexpected place. Unlike cheeks or bottoms, bony protuberances may redden for a period that is within both official guidelines and any prospect of a police response.

As a health visitor, Donna Kinnair, Southwark's director of nursing and a member of the Climbié inquiry, witnessed many tactics for concealment: "They'll pinch behind the ears, they'll hit the soles of the feet, they'll hit the head, because the hair will cover it up, but the injuries are worse, because the brain rocks from side to side".

Geoff Debelle, consultant paediatrican and the senior doctor for child protection at Birmingham Children's Hospital, confirms that he sees unmarked, but badly hurt children: "There are injuries that are quite nasty that don't leave any marks at all. Often with impact injuries you do see reddening, but a blow to the abdomen doesn't leave any superficial marks at all, the child just starts to vomit." Very small babies may show no superficial bruises, or redness - "then you do an x-ray and there's a fracture on the thighbone, then you x-ray other bones and you may find multiple fractures."

Bruising will be still more difficult to detect on a dark-skinned child. Debelle checks with an ultra-violet light source - a piece of apparatus which parents (or police officers) - may want to acquire if the amendment is designed to protect black children, as well as white ones.

On Monday evening, a few pleas to this effect were stifled by peers who preferred to discuss their own parenting styles, debate the career of the late Dr Spock and compare notes on those mysterious supermarkets where, it appears, a special checkout is reserved for peers and public enemy number one: rabid, smackable toddlers. If enacted, their amendment - which simultaneously legitimises hitting and invites malicious prosecutions - could create such havoc that it begins to look very much like a piece of mischief. A kind of modest proposal, satirising state-regulated battery. Or, more ambitiously, an attempt at a Solomonic rebuke to advocates of the loving smack. If so, it backfired. This time round, the warring parties decided to take it out on the baby.

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