No harm in it?

Kristyn Wise worked for many years in the UK promoting
children’s rights and participation. She is the author of numerous
articles on rights issues and has co-authored several publications
about young people’s participation. She is currently living and
working with children and young people in Brazil.

Who says children aren’t interested in politics? There were
enough of them marching through London on the day of the smacking
debate in the House of Lords last July to suggest otherwise. They
had placards and banners, and a few were sophisticated enough to
have included pictures of Lord Lester of Herne Hill, complete with
horns and a pitchfork.

The children and young people who had congregated for the protest
were adamant that smacking was wrong. They were also determined
that, if adult lawmakers were to decide that parents were legally
entitled to hit their children, they should have to make this
decision in the presence of children.

In the end, the children’s voices were unrepresented in the debates
that followed. The Lords voted overwhelmingly against a total ban
on smacking, opting instead for the Lester amendment to the
Children Bill, which will allow smacking so long as it is not
“harmful”. It seems likely that the House of Commons will follow
suit after the summer recess, and the compromise legislation will
pass into law towards the end of this year.

That Lord Lester has a background in human rights law seems
extraordinary in the context of the fudge he has led. As Carolyne
Willow, national co-ordinator for the Children’s Rights Alliance
for England puts it: “There can be no compromise on equality; you
either believe in it or you don’t. You either support fundamental
human rights principles, that all people are born with equal worth
and dignity and should have equal protection under the law, or you

The Lester amendment complies with neither the obligations the UK
has under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
nor its duties under the European Social Charter. The committee on
the rights of the child has emphasised to the UK three times in
recent years that proposals to limit, rather than abolish, corporal
punishment “do not comply with the principles and provisions of the

In its 2002 report to the UK, the committee elaborated that
half-hearted measures “suggest that some forms of corporal
punishment are acceptable, thereby undermining educational measures
to promote positive and non-violent discipline”. The view of the
European Committee on Social Rights is the same.

The arguments behind the Lester amendment, which suggest that
children should have lesser rights than adults, are difficult to
take seriously. The first is that children are frustrating
creatures who are naughty and who are likely to put themselves in
extreme situations of danger. They might run into the road five
times, and what else is a parent to do?

Apart from the sheer implausibility of this situation, I have to
note that my own children have never frustrated me to the same
extent as some local authority managers or, indeed, some of our
civil servants or parliamentarians. But so far I have managed to
refrain from standing up and whacking any of them around the

The second argument is that it isn’t the government’s role to run a
nanny state that tells people what to do. Yet, paradoxically, only
a few weeks before the Lester amendment was heard, home secretary
David Blunkett welcomed the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims
Bill into the House of Commons. He said: “Such behaviour was
tolerated in years gone by, often condoned, and certainly pushed
under the carpet. Young men should no longer think it is acceptable
to commit violence against women. We want to change the perception
of what is acceptable.”

Isn’t this exactly what we expect government to do? Would we vote
for Labour if the leadership said that in the interests of a more
“hands off” government it would repeal our right not to be
assaulted? Surely we wouldn’t re-elect the government if it
promised to let neighbours settle their own disputes, for example,
by just getting on with it and slugging it out in the streets. Our
neighbours might decide we were next.

Len Holdstock was right when he stated, nearly 20 years ago, that
the “evidence indicating the detrimental effects of corporal
punishment is as indisputable as that indicating that the earth is
round. The continued use of corporal punishment is indicative of a
psychological and educational illiteracy of alarming

I also believe that children speak much more intelligently about
smacking than most adults do. In 1998 the National Children’s
Bureau and Save the Children conducted a unique survey to find out
what children aged five to seven thought about
smacking.2 These are some of the things that the 76
children who took part said about their experiences of the
“unharmful, light taps” their parents had given them:

  • “Smacking is parents trying to hit you, but instead of calling
    it a hit they call it a smack” – girl, seven.
  • “You’re hurt and it makes you cry” – girl, five.
  • “You feel like you don’t like your parents anymore” – girl,
  • “You feel as though you want to run away because they’re being
    mean to you” – girl, seven.
  • “It’s like when you’re in the sky and you’re falling to the
    ground and you just hurt yourself” – boy, seven.

Most children recognised that adults do not hit each other. From
their point of view, adults did not do this because they were older
and knew better, and also because they respected and loved each
other. The children felt that people hit other people when they did
not like them.

At the time the survey was taking place in 1998, a young English
boy was taking the UK government to the European Court of Human
Rights after his stepfather, who repeatedly beat him with a garden
cane, was acquitted by a UK court under the 144-year-old defence of
reasonable chastisement. The boy won, and the government was
ordered to pay him £10,000 compensation and his legal

After the judgement, the UK government announced that it would
reform the law to give children better protection from assault. The
Children Bill is a rare chance for the government to fulfil its
promise. It is the first time that smacking has been seriously
debated in the 15 years since the Children Act 1989 was

Many of the children who participated in the National Children’s
Bureau survey felt it was a good thing that adults were asking
children what they thought about the issue. A girl of seven thought
that if more people opposed smacking they might influence a change
in the law. She said: “If there were only six – but I don’t think
there is – then I don’t think he [Tony Blair] would change the law.
If there is a lot of people like, I don’t know, 70 or something,
then I think he would definitely change the law.”

May the optimism and the hopes of our children be justified.


The Lester amendment to the Children Bill, which will allow
parents to smack their children so long as it is not “harmful”, was
passed in the House of Lords and is likely to make it through the
Commons next month. This article examines the views of children on
smacking and argues that the voices of those affected most by the
proposed legislative changes should be better heard.


1 Len Holdstock,
Education for a New Nation, Africa Transpersonal
Association, 1987. 

2 Carolyne Willow and Tina
Hyder, It Hurts You Inside: Children Talking About
, from The National Children’s Bureau, 8 Wakeley
Street, London EC1V 7QE. Tel: 020 7843 6000.

Further information 

The website for the Children’s Rights Alliance for England has
up-to-date information about the progress of the Children Bill and
other legislation that affects children. Its web address is now  Children Are
Unbeatable! is a coalition of more than 350 organisations
campaigning to end the physical punishment of children. Its
has information on research into children’s views and on relevant
developments and court judgements from around the world.

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