What caused the riots across the UK in the summer of 2011? David Lammy, MP for Tottenham, seems to think he knows. Apparently we don’t hit our children enough any more.

and here:…
and here:
…he appears to attribute the riots to the ‘fact’ that parents aren’t allowed to smack their children any more and as a result are unable to instill discipline in them at all.

He is wrong. Here’s why.

Smacking is not against the law. Parents may still smack their children as a disciplinary strategy (however flawed that strategy may be). What they may not do is smack so hard that the smack causes visible bruising, grazes, scratches, swellings or cuts. So if David Lammy is calling for a change to the law in this area, he doesn’t mean ‘parents should be allowed to smack their children’ – because they already are allowed to. He means ‘parents should be allowed to smack their children ’til it really bloody hurts’, which is rather different. He means that the smallest, weakest, most defenceless members of our community should NOT be afforded the same protection (against actual bodily harm) under the law as the biggest, roughest, most-able-to-take-care-of-themselves thugs. He defends this position by implying that without this disciplinary tactic at their disposal, parents are helpless to prevent their children from growing up to become a rioting mob.

To find support for Lammy’s thesis, let’s look at Scotland. Scotland introduced protections for children against smacking in 2003, ahead of England and Wales where the law didn’t change until 2005. So naturally with parental discipline rolled back two years earlier, the Scots saw much worse rioting last summer….

Oh. That’s right. They didn’t.

In summer 2011 there was no rioting in Scotland. Scottish police support was deployed south of the border to help forces in parts of the country where hard smacking had been allowed to continue for longer. Hmm. Not yet much of an evidence base for Lammy’s thesis.

The Scottish position on smacking children is admirably clear and articulated here in the Scottish government’s publication ‘Children, Physical Punishment and the Law’:

Among other things, this document spells out what is wrong with smacking.


“Can be dangerous – it is easy to forget how delicate children are, particularly if you are frustrated or angry. What feels to you like a light slap can have the potential to cause real harm to a small child.

Sets children the wrong example – rather than correcting misbehaviour, it can teach children to hit out at people who are doing things they don’t like or who don’t do what the child wants them to do.

Has effects which last long after the physical pain dies away – young children will not necessarily associate the punishment with their behaviour. It can make them angry and resentful and can be damaging to their confidence and self-esteem.

Smacking is not an effective way to teach children discipline.”

But wait! I should get down off my soapbox, shouldn’t I? Because David Lammy didn’t mean children like mine. Unless he’s been misquoted, he only meant working class children.

“Legislation governing the smacking of children needs to be relaxed so working-class parents can instil discipline in their homes without fear of prosecution, a senior Labour politician has said.” (Guardian)

Obviously working class children need to be hit harder than middle class children, don’t they? He also referenced ‘typical single mums’. Their children must need to be hit harder too. So let’s be clear, if your parents are not middle class (like the legislators) or you’re only being raised by your mum then you need to be smacked more and / or harder.

Er… What?

Call me daft or soft but I think a law that protects children of every class, and regardless of family composition, is exactly the kind of law that we need, not a set of arrangements that pander to the supposed ‘rights’ of parents (of any class or gender) who think hitting is the only method of developing self discipline and respect for boundaries.

Instead of supporting his constituents who want to be able to inflict ABH on their children without fear of punishment, Lammy should be pointing out to them that the law does still permit them to smack their children, but that it isn’t a good way to develop better behaviour. Instead of demanding that the law revert to pre-2004 expectations of ‘reasonable punishment’ Lammy should be campaigning for full funding for parenting and family support programmes which help parents to find better and more effective, non-violent strategies for establishing and maintaining boundaries with their children and enabling good behaviour.

Above all, Lammy should remember the context of the 2004 Children Act, because the context was a massive failure of child protection in Haringey. On his patch.

The 2004 Children Act arose from the soul-searching and reflection that followed the death of Victoria Climbie.

The Victoria Climbie Inquiry Report ( explicitly references (p21) the escalation of abuse of this young girl, which started with ‘little smacks’ and ended with her death.

The Children Are Unbeatable Alliance’s submission to the enquiry ( provides a clear justification for why outlawing corporal punishment of children needed to be considered by the UK Government following the Victoria Climbie case, and points to Sweden as a comparator society, where smacking has been outlawed since the late 70s without either the mass prosecutions of parents or the mass deviant behaviour of children that proponents of smacking suggest would follow an outright ban in this country.

Lammy’s remarks also obliquely touch on another challenging aspect of the Victoria Climbie case, which is the way that child protection concerns intersect with cultural ‘norms’ in corporal punishment of children.

Lammy ridicules the apparent irrelevance of the current legislation to his non-white constituents: ‘The law used to allow ‘reasonable chastisement’, but current legislation stops actions that lead to a reddening of the skin – which for a lot of my non-white residents isn’t really an issue.”

While I agree that it is crass, and probably racist, for the law to refer to a form of harm that may be visible only on pale skin, Lammy surely doesn’t mean us to infer that it is OK to hit black children harder because the hurt is less likely to show?

The Victoria Climbie case forced social workers and other professionals engaged in child protection to confront assumptions that some of them were making about how families from different ethnic or cultural backgrounds disciplined their children. In particular it forced practitioners to ask the uncomfortable question “If Victoria had been a white child, would she have been treated any differently”?

This extract ( from a social work training module on anti-discriminatory practice shows how these issues continue to inform and shape developing social work practice.

At the heart of this module sits this statement from Lord Laming (2003): “The basic requirement that children are kept safe is universal and cuts across cultural boundaries… Cultural heritage is important to many people, but it cannot take precedence over standards of childcare embodied in law. …each child, irrespective of colour or background, should be treated as an individual requiring appropriate care.”

I’m shocked that a Tottenham MP should have such a short memory and dismayed that any public figure should appear to endorse corporal punishment of children based on their class, their family composition or perhaps even the colour of their skin.

If Every Child Matters, then we must find a way to support all parents and carers in establishing and maintaining discipline without violence. If Sweden can do it, then so can the UK.

The ‘Children Are Unbeatable Alliance’ notes that: “Sweden’s law against smacking is vigorously supported by government measures, for example information campaigns, amongst other things on milk cartons read by parents and children at the breakfast table; parent-education lessons, which all first-time parents receive, and immigrant-induction programmes.”

It asks: “Given the fact that banning smacking appears to help save children’s lives, the next question may be, is there a price to pay? For example, are there more Swedish children in care? No, levels of children in both voluntary and compulsory out-of-family placements have fallen sharply since the ban. Are Swedish children out of control? No, in most comparators of youth behaviour, such as crime, drug abuse, hooliganism and suicide, Swedish children not only fare better than UK children, the rates within Sweden have decreased over the period of the ban. Research also reports that the 1979 law focused parents’ attention on effective forms of discipline, so that Swedish parenting became less haphazard and impulsive (Reducing violence to US children: transferring positive innovations from Sweden A Haeuser, Wisconsin University, 1988). Are smacking parents persecuted by the courts? No, despite some well-publicised claims by a minority group of Christian fundamentalists (whose case illustrations reveal quite reasonable forms of state intervention). Though, as we have seen, reports of child abuse rose in Sweden after the ban, the proportion of those prosecuted did not – the trend is a declining one, and sharply so where parents in their twenties are concerned. These are the parents who were themselves brought up in a society without smacking.”

If he cant be persuaded to tackle the social and economic injustices to which so many attribute last summer’s riots, perhaps David Lammy could at least devote his energy to a campaign to outlaw smacking entirely instead?


8 thoughts on “Smack

  1. I’ve also heard, and believe, that if you smack children they only remember the smack, never what they’d done wrong. So it is not only cruel it teaches nothing.

  2. Absolutely. I think that this waste of space of an MP needs to look somewhere else if he wants to lay blame for these riots. This is ridiculously misguided political posturing, based on racism, classism and possibly extreme stupidity. Excellent blog, Sunny Hundal should be ashamed 😛

  3. Furthermore, it has always struck me as inherently contradictory. If we tell our kids it’s not right to achieve ends through violence, but also hit them, well that sends mixed messages. Also, there is a worrying implication that it’s ok to hit kids because they are weaker than us. Imagine for a minute that I hit my boss because her behaviour was unreasonable and obstructive. That’s wrong. Why isn’t it wrong to hit the kids? Because they are weaker, not in a position of authority, under your influence, your responsibility…all of those answers worry me.

  4. What a fantastic post! Very clearly argued and shows the ridiculousness of David Lammy and those who advocate smacking.

  5. love this post, wise words spoken. i wholeheartedly agree that a child should be protected from hard regardless of class or race. last year i had a disagreement with a so called ‘doctor’ on twitter who was creating quite a discussion on his timeline by saying ‘black children should be treated harshly’. (he was black himself). as a human being this made me furious to hear yet he defended himself saying i wouldn’t understand because i was white. i had to block him in the end before i exploded with rage!i know first hand that violence begets violence, even if that violence takes a slightly different form. i want my son to come to me for comfort not punishment.

  6. Yet again your all trying to apply a common policy to what are individuals, from a punishment perspective, some children need to be spoken to, some children need to have things taken from them, some children need to be made to sit on the naughty step and unfortunately some children need to be smacked on the back side to make them sit up and listen…i know this..I was one of those children growing up. You could have spoken to me and reasoned with me until the cows come home, I simply wouldn’t listen, only a clip round the ear hole or a smacked backside used to make me think twice…my worry is that if the policies and attitudes towards corporal punishment we have today had been applied to me when i was growing up I shudder to think what would have happened to me, I suspect a life of crime and prison would have ensued…I needed a stern hand, some kids do, the punishments applied need to be applied depending on the child not on a generic carte blanch policy…

  7. Neil, I can understand why you may think that only smacking would have ‘worked’ for you, but the evidence from those countries where all corporal punishment has been banned suggests that no child ‘needs’ to be smacked. We don’t make policy to manage adult behaviour on the basis that some of them just need to be hit. I can’t think why it would be true for small, defenceless children.

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