The Welsh government has announced a law that will criminalise parents for smacking their children. Smacking by adults and in school, settings is already classified as assault. This new law aims to extend the legal protection of children by removing defence of “reasonable punishment” that legally safeguards a parent’s use of some forms of corporal punishment in disciplinary practice. The decision to outlaw smacking brings about contentious and pertinent issues regarding what ‘good’ parenting looks like, how this might differ depending on cultural norms, and whether giving the state power over such private issues truly serves to protect the interests of society.
Legislators in Wales believe this law will normalise more effective and acceptable methods of discipline. They assure that criminalisation will only happen when “significant harm [is] being done,” but for such a sensitive issue their wording seems too subjective to be reliable. That is not to say that parents smacking their children is necessary in any case, but that it is important for an offence to be evaluated with regards to the challenges faced by social workers, parents and legal guardians.
That said, it’s important to emphasise that the child’s interests in terms of developmental growth and wellbeing lie at the heart of this discussion. Parental abuse must be counteracted by adequate laws. Parents are still responsible for their children, standing as symbolic figures of authority and a means of connecting children to wider society. Smacking arguably undermines the mutual respect between parent and child, so should be legally regulated.
Laws often influence moral customs in society, so criminalising parents for smacking their children will potentially stigmatise and alienate those families. Certain populations plausibly could disagree with aspects this legislation. Especially when families move into different societies, culture clashes seem inevitable. Childcare – physical disciplinary practice in particular – is a collision site. But can cultural difference warrant breaking the law?
A study in 2010 looked at the legal precedent for this defence of corporal punishment. In one of these cases, a Californian judge ruled cultural context as sufficient to justify the breaking of more serious laws. After a Guatemalan father disciplined his son for stealing by holding the boy’s hands over an open flame, the judge commented: “we find ourselves in the cross-current of customs and habits.” He ordered the accused to pay a small fine instead of facing six years in jail, which might have been expected. The ruling led to public dismay, and retrospective support for the prosecutor’s case that culture should not influence judicial punishment.
This type of ruling, where a cultural background defence seems to have led legal proceedings awry, might persuade us that defence shouldn’t hold real weight. However, a more nuanced view might be needed. Cultural bias has plagued social welfare agencies in North America and Europe for decades.
The same study evaluated cases of children being removed from healthy families because migrant parents had been falsely identified as abusive, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Raising children is difficult anywhere, but if parents arrive in Wales unaware of the legal status of smacking, they may not be well equipped to function in accordance with the law. Welsh authorities need to establish proper support systems. Making sure that this law operates as intended must involve educating parents from different cultural backgrounds about the laws governing parenting in Wales.
If this task is neglected, social workers, prosecutors and judges will struggle to understand and evaluate cases of migrant families accustomed to smacking.
The Welsh state is fully responsible for executing this legal change. It must be prepared to deal with whatever challenge this presents fairly and with a strong degree of accountability.