Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s wife Lana would be forgiven for wishing her husband had left her out of it when he revealed to the world that she occasionally gives their daughter “a light smack on the arm if she’s being completely naughty.” Zahawi rejected a call by England’s Children’s Commissioner Dame Rachel de Souza to follow Scotland and Wales in banning the smacking of children, describing such a move as “nanny state politics”.

Speaking on Times Radio, Zahawi said his strong view was that parents must be trusted on this issue and that “being able to discipline their children is something they should be entitled to do.” He added that there was a very big difference between a light smack on the arm and child abuse. Dame Rachel said earlier that she was “against violence of any kind against children”, and that following the introduction of a ban in Wales she “would be supportive if our government decided to do the same.”

The new ban in Wales follows a similar move in Scotland in 2020 and marks the end of the common law defence of “reasonable punishment”, making illegal any type of corporal punishment including smacking, hitting, slapping and shaking. Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer has also said the move should be mirrored in England, calling it “the right thing to do”. In his radio interview, Zahawi defended his own stance saying, “A light smack on the arm by a parent – I think most people listening this morning won’t recognise as anything wrong.”

But is the Education Secretary correct, and who exactly can decide what constitutes “a light smack?” One parent’s light smack may well be another’s painful blow. And what precisely is the purpose of a light smack? Is it to hurt the child, to make the young person cry, to warn that if naughty behaviour does not cease immediately more severe punishment will follow? And then what precisely is more severe punishment? Another smack, and then another? Where does a parent go next? Some of us will remember the “You wait ‘til your father gets home” threat. Does even that work? Unlikely. In reality, doesn’t smacking mean the parent has lost control of the situation? That can and does happen, of course, and is completely understandable.

Children can very easily bring parents to tears of hurt, frustration and anger. But rather than resorting to physical violence, isn’t it better for the parent to take a deep breath, retire from the situation for a few moments to regain composure before attempting to tackle the issue afresh? It isn’t easy but no one ever said that parenting was easy. A child who has been smacked may later find it easier to lash out at friends and other young people. One smack and then another. Then the first punch. And after that? The knife? Isn’t one of the main roles of every parent to show their children that ultimately violence only begets violence?

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