This popped into my head this week when I saw a woman smack her kid. Now, don't get me wrong, her kid was annoying. To be blunt, he was bloody annoying. Anyway, we were at soft play and for the 90 minutes we were there, he took toys off the other kids non-stop. He rammed his bubble car into them. He operated his toy walker in a way that should have seen him stripped of his walker licence and thrown in toddler jail. And after several parents swooped their kids up when he even came close, his mother moved him away and slapped his arm several times. Tears - no, real guttural howls - followed. Several parents watched, appalled, but no one said anything, including me. And the child continued to wail.
I'm against smacking. I'm not casually against it, it's the one area in childrearing where I have that parental arrogance that drives other parents (including me) nuts. I wholeheartedly believe I'm right on this one, something I seldom believe or say. I do not care why you are smacking. I do not care if you think it is a useful form of discipline. I do not care if you don't leave a mark and if you only use it rarely. I certainly don't care if you were hit as a kid and it never did you any harm. (I disagree - you're now smacking a child.) Smacking is always wrong. Spare the rod, spoil the child be damned. Ask an adult if they were hit and they never respond with: "Actually, I don't remember." Because it sticks in your head as a betrayal. You often don't understand why it happened, or you feel the reason for it was unfair. If smacking stops a child going near plug sockets again, great. But I'd rather have a relationship where a child stayed back to please me than because they were terrified of my hand. And then there are parents who tell a child they're going to be hit when the other parent (usually the father) returns. So hours of fear and then a trashed relationship with the second parent. And as for the "different generation" line, I don't think it washes. I don't see how physical violence as a parenting tool was ever okay.
If a parent hits, it teaches the child that force is fine, and when you grow up you can use force too. It's the boarding school mentality of sixth formers ordering the little ones around because they'll have little servants one day too. So you're hit and you learn how, when you're older, you can use power to beat the powerless. In fact, that's what you're meant to do. We live in a patriarchal society with horrendous domestic violence rates. I don't want my son learning that lesson.
What really bugged me about witnessing the hitting (aside from the child's pain) was how many other kids saw it. They all stopped and looked. It was the confused expression on my son's face. It was the fact that one mother's choice entered the heads of about 20 toddlers. Hitting isn't just a family decision. Even if it's done in the home, other kids will know about it from chats at school and take it on board. Fine, you can make clear you don't parent like that, but they'll still absorb the notion of power. Smacking isn't a personal choice, it has a very real social impact.
Yet I said nothing. Neither did anyone else. We kept back because getting involved would have resulted in a slanging match. No one wants to be told how to parent. And, it has to be said, there was part of my mind which saw her hit and figured she'd try to hit an adult too. If that's how you solve a discipline problem, why wouldn't you lash out in any confrontation?
So maybe smacking or getting involved in parenting is the last taboo. The law allows mild smacking but what I saw didn't look mild. I wish there was an outright ban to encourage social attitudes to shift so a parent could have complained and that mother been thrown out. But I suspect we'll feel okay about chiding people for eating chocolate cake before we feel okay about stopping red marks on our children. When I heard that piece, I thought I would never say anything to an overweight person. It would be rude. But perhaps we should get involved in each other's lives more because we seem to live in a society where we daren't question other people's choices, no matter what their impact. And so that little boy will continue to cause havoc and other parents will continue to keep their children away from him and the mother will hit him and round and round we'll all go until that cycle of behaviour is repeated. I'm as guilty as anyone for enabling this by staying silent and I really don't like myself for it. And I hate the way silence is society's preferred option.