Sunday, March 07, 2004

A Girl (Sappho, approx 600 BC, translated by CM Bowra)

I have a child; so fair
As golden flowers is she,
My Cleis, all my care.
I'd not give her away
For Lydia's wide sway
Nor lands men long to see.

It's not giving her away but being taken away from her I'm more worried about, following reports that Blunkett has surrendered to the anti-smacking lobby.

I have smacked her in the past and I'm sure I'll have to do so on a future occasion. Her rages are titanic, magnificent - like a force of nature, yet there are some boundaries she's not allowed to go beyond - in speech or behaviour. She's six years old and I love everything about her.

Yet a lot of people think I, and the other 70% of parents who occasionally smack their children, should be locked up and are campaigning to that effect.

After all, how can you teach a child that hitting people is bad when you hit them yourself ?

What a good argument. How can we teach our young people that taking other people's money or property is bad and yet fine them for not having a tax disc, or send the bailiffs in when they don't pay the gas bill ? How can we teach them that kidnapping people and holding them captive is wrong, yet support the processes of arrest and imprisonment ?

How can we teach them that invading other countries is bad and yet support the overthrow of Saddam ?
Maybe that last was a bad example, because I'm pretty sure there's a hefty correlation between the anti-family crowd and the anti-war crowd.

A quick flick down the list of supporters provides a few rough categories.

People whose living and career is funded by increased family breakdown (the largest category - all those professors, paediatricians and parenting co-ordinators). I think the economists call it 'producer capture'.

Old rich hippies (Branson, Peel, Gabriel, Melvyn Bragg, three-quarters of whom make their homes in leafy (or hilly) conservative shires.)

Homosexual activists who might not be too displeased at higher levels of family breakup, though I can't imagine why.

Radical feminists who see the family as the source of all oppression (Beatrix Campbell, the various Domestic Violence specialists), whereas I see it as the place where children learn to be good.

Agony Aunts and sobbing abbesses (Virginia Ironside, Susie Orbach).

Jenny Tonge MP - it's bad to smack children but she might consider blowing them up.

What they all have in common is an income considerably above average, enabling them to to insulate themselves from the effects of family and social breakdown.

Organisations such as NSPCC and Barnardos are leery of actually releasing any of the research on which their policies are based (I wrote in vain to them asking for the references). I get the impression that they rely upon studies of dysfunctional underclass 'families' (remember that for today's liberal class 'family' usually means Mum, child and whoever Mum's shacked up with at the time), the sort of family where a child may be smacked for anything, everything and nothing. If you don't know what I mean skip Tesco and get down to your local Lidl on a Friday between 4 and 6. To rely on such studies is the equivalent of studying Ugandan and Congolese militia, plus the Red Army's advance through Germany in Spring 1945, and concluding that the British Army should be disbanded because of the unacceptably high risk of atrocities being perpetrated on civilians.

Of course targeted and controlled violence, which is what smacking is, is probably the most effective modifier of behaviour ever devised. Parents wouldn't use it if it didn't work. The problem is that a growing number of people don't believe it's a parents role to try and modify a child's behaviour, especially not in such a mechanistic way. After all, if a child's behaviour causes concern, there's obviously some deep-seated ... blah ... underlying cause ... the poor creature needs help from experts - people who really have the child's interests at heart. Have you considered these new behaviour-modifying drugs ? Now that's what I call child abuse - a nine year old on Ritalin . There are tens of thousands of such children in Britain, probably a couple in every primary school.

Peter Hitchens wrote in 'The Abolition Of Britain' of the conflict between the therapeutic and judgemental approach to discipline in schools :

"The rebuking slap or smack, or even the blow of the ruler on the hand, are all symbols of authority imposed from above, unquestioned and unquestionable. They define the limits of a child's behaviour and make it plain that the child is subject to the adult, who acts in the place of the parent. The doctor and psychologist, the use of pseudo-scientific discipline, are symbols of an entirely different form of government. If a child needs a smack, he is a free individual who has overstepped the line. If he needs a child guidance clinic, there is something wrong with him which must be cured."

The abolition of smacking has long been the aim of the anti-family lobby. It's an extremely effective weapon. The aim isn't to protect children - there are laws in place for that already. The real target is the family as a transmitter of the existing culture, with particular emphasis on the role of the father. For the radical anti-patriarch 'Wait till your father gets home !' is anathema. In practice we see that violence up to and including mass murder carried out by a mother is always understandable and sometimes excusable. After all, isn't the mother a victim too ?
Similarly ethnic minorities, who are generally great believers in the physical punishment of children, will be cut a fair amount of slack. We have seen in the Climbie case that an African couple can torture a child, and her fear will be ascribed to the cultural respect for elders so prominent in Caribbean communities.

To some extent the State is already mediating between parent and child. Your child may be offered contraception or abortion without your knowledge, as the parent who found 'killed my baby' in her daughter's diary recently discovered. In an age where 'grassing up' your mates is the greatest playground and street crime, organisations like Childline offer you the chance to, like Pavel Morozovich (who became a Hero of the Soviet Union for denouncing his parents to Stalin's secret police), grass up Mater and Pater. If you are sixteen and wish to leave home, your age makes you a 'vulnerable person' and catapults you to the top of the housing list, as the great Dalrymple noted when he asked an Asian girl what kind of relationship with her parents she wanted. 'Like an English girl' she replied. 'And that is ?' 'They look after you till you're sixteen and then you get a flat'.

Not so long ago I read in my local paper of the death of such a sixteen-year old from a heroin overdose. (He hadn't got on with his parents and had made himself homeless, knowing he'd be offered accommodation. Our nearest town has about a dozen such deaths a year). And a friend's daughter left home at fifteen, moving in with her boyfriend and his father. Social Services considered it an acceptable arrangement.

For me this mooted law change is a little late to modify my child-rearing, as they're mostly beyond the smacking age, though I wouldn't put it past my poppet to call the police. In a rage she's capable of anything. But for society the effects will be profound. They will be

a) a lower birth rate as parenting becomes not only hard work but hard work with no effective available control mechanisms. People will be less likely to have children as the relations between uncontrollable children and powerless teachers in State schools become replicated within families.

b) Increased family breakdown.

c) Increased crime and disorder.

d) Increased rates of drug abuse and STDs among the young.

e) Increased emigration of native Brits.

It began with a poem and it will end with a poem. On occasions, hopefully rare ones, a parent will smack a child unwisely, and suffer for it. So for all parents who've ever been there here's what Alice Bachini would perhaps characterise as a 'message of evil' .

The Toys (from the Unknown Eros, by Coventry Patmore 1823-1896)

MY little Son, who look'd from thoughtful eyes
And moved and spoke in quiet grown-up wise,
Having my law the seventh time disobey'd,
I struck him, and dismiss'd
With hard words and unkiss'd,
—His Mother, who was patient, being dead.
Then, fearing lest his grief should hinder sleep,
I visited his bed,
But found him slumbering deep,
With darken'd eyelids, and their lashes yet
From his late sobbing wet.
And I, with moan,
Kissing away his tears, left others of my own;
For, on a table drawn beside his head,
He had put, within his reach,
A box of counters and a red-vein'd stone,
A piece of glass abraded by the beach,
And six or seven shells,
A bottle with bluebells,
And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,
To comfort his sad heart.
So when that night I pray'd
To God, I wept, and said:
Ah, when at last we lie with tranced breath,
Not vexing Thee in death,
And Thou rememberest of what toys
We made our joys,
How weakly understood
Thy great commanded good,
Then, fatherly not less
Than I whom Thou hast moulded from the clay,
Thou'lt leave Thy wrath, and say,
-'I will be sorry for their childishness.'