The government is proposing new legislation that would make it a crime for parents to strike a child with anything other than their hand. All implements, such as canes, belts or slippers, would be forbidden for use in physical punishment, along with smacking a child's head, eyes or ears.
The document, which is still only a recommendation, stops short of an outright ban on physical discipline, however.
"We are determined to ensure that nothing undermines a parent's right to discipline a child in a loving and caring environment," Health Minister John Hutton said. "We do not believe the criminal law should dictate to a parent's responsibility for their children."
As the saying goes, "spare the rod and spoil the child." For Tony Peachan's family, those are words to live by. "I do not believe in smacking," he explained. "I think it happens, and I've done it, but I don't think it's a good way to deal with any given situation."
Tony's son, Thomas, heartily seconded that opinion: "Lots of children have gotten smacked, and I don't think it's very right, because how would the grownups feel if they got smacked."
This all started when the European Court of Human Rights boxed Great Britain's ears for legal acceptance of the Victorian-era concept of "reasonable chastisement."
The court found in 1998 that a British father who "repeatedly and severely" beat his son was guilty of assault. The man had been acquitted by an English court after claiming "reasonable chastisement," which allows a parent to contend an assault was justified in order to discipline a child.
The latest recommendations were welcomed by children's rights groups, although many called for the government to go further and ban all forms of physical punishment.
Children's book author Penelope Leach said that no matter how soft a blow, "The child is getting the message: When the chips are down, particularly if you're bigger than the other person, hitting them is a good way to go. And that's not something we really want children to learn."
But others say the government shouldn't lay too heavy a hand on parental rights.
"Our job today is to make sure that criminal law properly safeguards children from abuse, but does that in a way that does not criminalize ordinary, decent law-abiding parents," explained John Errington, Save the Children.
Interested groups and members of the public have three months to respond to the proposals before the government takes any further action.
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