19.06.1994

Yes, we can bring back smacking

Yes, we can bring back smacking
 
Modish theories about kindness to children are invariably cruel and harmful, says LYNETTE BURROWS
 
IT is a perfect fable for today. A young tearaway terrorises an elderly couple, and a police­man, called to assist them, cuffs him. The couple have no redress; the tearaway is awarded £50 compensation; and the police­man is fined and threatened with the sack. It is a situation that out­rages common sense and must pose the question: by what law is anyone prevented from doing what the policeman did?
 
The answer is that they are not prevented by direct legislation so much as by "codes" and "guide­lines" that have been adopted by various professional bodies under the influence of a compelling, though unproved, theory which claims that physical correction is harmful.
 
There are many precedents for this tyranny of a powerful theory, and all have been strikingly wrong. After the fashion has passed, it is difficult to believe anyone could ever have accepted them. Consider the pre-war guru of child-care John Watson. He preached that mother-love was bad for children and could "seriously damage a child's chance of happiness". He objected particu­larly to physical affection towards children which, he claimed, led to "moral invalidism" in later life.
 
His theories had an effect that lasted for upwards of 30 years because many professionals involved in the care of children believed them. As a result, until well into the 1950s, the dreaded mothers were seldom allowed to visit their sick children in hospital and, even more disastrously, chil­dren were placed in orphanages rather than with foster-parents who would show them the parental affection that we now recognise is vital.
 
The stranglehold of this destruc­tive theory began to be broken only when James Robertson, a psycho­analyst at the Tavistock Institute, made a series of films which, he believed, could demonstrate more clearly than words, the damage that was being done. He showed the unvisited child in hospital (1952) and four years later showed how childish distress was mitigated by the presence of the mother.
 
The films were greeted with hostility and scorn by professionals dealing with children, but he perse­vered and produced, in 1968, his most influential film, John, which followed the process of emotional and physical decline in an infant boy placed in an orphanage. In the words of Robertson's obituary in the Times in 1989, "in it a 17-month-old child disintegrates before the eyes of the viewers". It is striking that this decline is obvious to the viewers, but was not to the profes­sionals dealing with the child.
 
Soon after this, official policy was changed but the cost in human casualties has never been assessed. The most we get is an occasional passing reference, as in the case of child-killer Robert Black, impris­oned for life only weeks ago; it was said that he did not seem to possess human emotions or to be able to relate to people. He had spent his infancy in orphan­ages, we were told, and when he was finally fostered it was with an elderly widow who died when he was 13.
 
It is worth raking up this frightful aberration because precisely the same group of professionals now assert that physical correction of children is harmful. The evidence that they are wrong is as obvious as the film that recorded the decline of poor little John. Violence and bully­ing is endemic in many schools, respect for the police has collapsed, and whole neighbourhoods are sub­ject to vandalism and hooliganism without redress. On housing estates hooligans shout "Respect" when a car is crashed or violent damage is done, while law-abiding adults watch grimly, unable by law to lift a hand to show that violence can also be used towards a moral end.
 
This really goes to the heart of the fallacy that underpins the abhorrence of physical correction. It leaves violence, for which the male of the species has an instinctive respect, entirely in the hands of the illegitimate operator. Respect does not have to be associated with lik­ing or approval; at its most basic level it is simply an instinct for survival that means respect is accorded to those who are stronger and can hurt.
 
It is thus supremely important that the ability to use physical force is not confined to bad eggs while those on the side of decency and civic order are restricted to weak and demonstrably ineffective pun­ishments. The boneless response to youthful male aggression, the nag­ging, wheedling and bribing of young males to make them behave, produces only contempt, while the proposal to lock them up for months or years on end is a costly and even     cruel alternative.
 
Very few people believe that paci­fism in the face of an aggressor is effec­tive; and those who did in the 1930s dis­covered the hard way that, in the end, bullies have to be confronted and put down with a degree of force. Indeed, if we did not know this to be true, there would be no point in shouting "Help!" when we are attacked. What the cry demands is equivalent physical force used in pursuit of a moral end; the fact that both the attacker and the rescuer use aggression does not confuse the issue, and it is a bogus argument to claim that it does.
 
The fact that the anti-physical correction theory has taken hold among a small group of profession­als is perhaps best explained by the psychological term "group-think". This is a phenomenon described by the American psychologist Irving Janis, in several books, whereby a small group of like-minded individuals are recruited around an idea,' They share a feeling of moral supe­riority and a sense of mission aria have a contagious certainty that anyone who does not agree with them is intellectually beyond the pale.   
 
Such a group was "Stopp", which masterminded the anti-corporal punishment legislation in the teeth of opposition from teachers, parents and children. The coordinator of that pressure group, Peter Newell, of the Children's Legal Centre, then moved on to form Epoch, dedicated to taking away parents' rights to smack their children. He orga­nised a small group that worked assiduously, with glossy brochures, selective quotes and media personalities, to create an impression of an army with banners, to influence professionals in the field of child care, social work, fostering and child-minding.
 
Ninety per cent of the public dis­agree with the aims of Epoch, but, they campaign ceaselessly, and to the officials who listen to them they seem to represent the general view.
 
We simply cannot afford to allow the heirs of John Watson to lead us by the nose for another 20 years of ever-rising juvenile misbehaviour and the misery it causes. It would be a simple matter to amend the Education Act to reinstate corporal punishment in schools that want it. One suspects that schools that could offer swift punishment, instead of laborious, counter-pro­ductive punishments like suspen­sion and "exclusion" (66,000 last year), would prove popular with both parents and children.
 
Policemen should be allowed the discretion to cuff young hooligans as they did in the not-so-distant past. It is precisely this power exercised without hindrance by bouncers in pubs and clubs today, that has earned them the awed respect of the disorderly which the police cannot match. We must allow the police, and all who have the job of maintaining discipline among the rowdy young, to do so by time-honoured means, rather than face humiliation and failure in pursuit of what is at best a fallacy and at worst a conspiracy.