Where the hurt is

New Labour’s decision to allow childminders to smack children is
unconscionable, argues Alison Taylor, who believes a children’s
commissioner for England is long overdue.

In England, from October 2001, childminding services will be
removed from local authority control and taken over, on a national
basis, by Ofsted. In Wales, the Welsh Assembly has yet to decide
whether to disband the current child care partnerships of social
services, education and health, but any new system would remain
answerable to the Children’s Commissioner for Wales.

These radical changes in England look like another nail in the
coffin of social services departments, although which organisation
delivers a service should not be an issue provided the service
meets the needs of those it serves. Childminding must be properly
regulated, but unnecessary bureaucracy will deter even the
best-intentioned applicants. Registration of minders is steadily
declining, with demand already exceeding supply in many areas: a
predictable outcome of this is likely to be the growth of
unofficial minding, with all its potential risks. Hopefully,
reorganisation of the service will result in positive benefits and
improvements, and not prove to be something done simply for the
sake of change. The old saying that “constant change is here to
stay” is particularly relevant to health and personal social
services, with which government and civil servants love to tinker,
allegedly to improve services and to increase cost-effectiveness,
and spending, in the process, billions of pounds that should be
channelled into services.

Childminding is substitute parenting, and parenting is a
combination of nurturing – in its widest sense, of loving,
protecting, teaching, and watching over. I asked several parents
who use minders about their expectations, and the responses were
identical: they want their children to be safe, and to be properly
looked after. What they do not want is for their children to be
confused, upset, mistreated directly or indirectly, at risk in any
way, isolated, lonely, or neglected. Parents who leave their
children in the care of others perceive this as a form of
abandonment, and usually feel very guilty as well as chronically
fearful for their child’s safety – responses that are wholly
natural. Young children find separation from parents similarly
distressing, and unless the substitute care is consistent and
loving, may develop emotional, psychological and behavioural

As laid out by the government, childminding services will be
professional, well-regulated and business-like. Aspects of good
child care are particularised, and if there is no mention of
offering children affection and nurturing, this could perhaps be
taken as read. However, what is abundantly clear, although
unbelievably illogical and deeply disturbing, is that with prior
written parental consent, minders can smoke in the presence of
their charges and can administer physical chastisement.

Young children and smoking are a potentially lethal combination,
and passive smoking is the least of the risks. Children, intensely
inquisitive but lacking discrimination, play with anything to hand,
put things in their mouths and swallow all kinds of objects. Nobody
has eyes in the back of their head, and so, the childminder’s
mandatory public liability insurance notwithstanding, who carries
the can if a child chokes on a purloined cigarette; swallows
tobacco, ingesting in the process nicotine, one of the most
poisonous substances on earth; or learns the hard way about matches
and lighters and sends the minder’s house up in flames, together
with every one in it?

Physical chastisement is prohibited in state schools, but
minders may smack babies and very young children. Why, when the
European Convention on Human Rights deems such punishment a breach
of children’s rights? What do we teach children when we hit them?
What might happen in a group of children where some are smacked and
others are not? To most parents and to anyone working in
residential child care the effects on group dynamics of arbitrarily
applied punishments are all too familiar: they are disastrous. From
a very young age, children are watchful, observant and prone to
copying, again indiscriminately, the behaviour they witness.

Another worst case scenario: Child A’s parents abhor the notion
of physical chastisement, but Child A’s minder is allowed to smack
Baby B, and does so on occasion. Child A thus learns that it is
acceptable to hit babies when his own parents are not present, and,
putting his new learning into practice, clouts Baby C so hard that
the baby is seriously injured. Who is to blame?

The perceived “right” to hit children is ingrained in the
British psyche, justified as “being for their own good”, a
throwback to old notions about beating out sin. Shortly before the
Waterhouse tribunal commenced its hearings, a Conservative MP told
me that in his opinion children in care should be birched, and I
know others share such feelings, outrageous though they are.

The overhaul of the childminding system provided government with
an ideal opportunity to take an important ideological step forward
and to outlaw all physical chastisement. In Wales, it is my
understanding that the Children’s Commissioner would not
countenance any corporal punishment, whatever alterations are made
to the system’s oversight. Perhaps England should lobby harder for
its own commissioner.

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