Sometimes, the SNP get it right

Scotland has become the first country in the UK to ban disciplining your child. Too right.

Naturally, the pro-smacking children lobby (Brendan O’Neill and friends) is up in arms at the awful political correctness of the whole thing - and says being disciplined as a child helped him develop self-control. Last week, he went on national television and called for riots because the current state of British politics upsets him. 

Donnelly & Strauss (2005) define disciplining your child (of the kind that has been outlawed) as ‘the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correcting or controlling the child’s behaviour.’ The Brendan O’Neill’s of the world are rallying against it for reasons of individual liberty - parents should be free to raise their kids how they think they should be raised.

At the Adam Smith Institute, the ‘individual liberty’ argument resonates in many areas of policy. Of course, there’s a free to choose argument in most cases, and most of the time the individual liberty argument is wholly appropriate - but on corporal punishment for kids, the evidence simply doesn’t stack up.

The ‘it never did me any harm’ line doesn’t hold. Adults who are disciplined physically as a child are more likely to suffer mental health problems, and to behave in anti-social ways. According to Good Therapy, severe spankings can undermine brain development in children. A recent study (Merikangas, K, Nakamura, E & Kessler, R, 2009) notes that children who were spanked at least 12 times per year for 3 years had less grey matter in areas of the brain linked to mental health challenges and addictions. Researchers suggest that, contrary to Brendan O’Neill’s arguments on self-control, this may be because children who are spanked don’t learn to control their own behavior. Rather than becoming self-dependent, children who are spanked are perpetually afraid of being punished by external authorities and are, as a result, more likely to defer to authority or require an authoritative figure.

There are legitimate arguments against the law that don’t go down the ‘spanking children is fine’ line. It will be virtually impossible to enforce in any meaningful way, and there’s arguments that locking a parent up may not be conducive to healthy development either. But the amount of holes in the arguments of those in favour of discipline is pretty ridiculous. In his article (on Spiked) Brendan O’Neill makes the claim that disciplining children is fair because children are dependents - and rely on adults/parents to treat them in ways in which they wouldn’t treat other adults - such as cleaning them, feeding them, and more. The obvious flaw in this is that children are technically ‘dependents’ until the age of 18 - which is why they serve juvenile sentences for crimes, can’t buy alcohol, and generally can’t do a lot of the things adults can.

There’s a case for changing the ages at which you can legally do several things - not least vote - but I don’t think O’Neill would comfortably make the case for parents being able to discipline an 18 year old. 

As is often the case with public policy - politicians failed to devise watertight legislation. As mentioned, it will be difficult for the law to be enforced particularly well given the fact that many children are not in much of a position to report on what goes on in their home - but in principle the policy is a sound one.

The evidence is overwhelming. Disciplining children isn’t conducive to sound, healthy development - nor does it encourage kids to ‘obey’ their parents. Taking steps to prevent it is right.