There is always that child you know you should never ring home for, who may be disrupting a class, but whose parents are suspected to be a little too free with their fists. That child who is known to Social Services, who may not have broken bones, but cries hysterically when you say you might ring home to their mum or dad to let them know their child has a detention. That child whose life swings between rebellion and fear. The rebellion in school against the harsh discipline of home, the fear that their school may cause physical harm in trying to resolve the issues.
Teachers spend their days counselling children to do the right thing. If there is an argument, talk it through with a member of staff, with another student you trust, with the other party involved. When you have hurt someone, you must apologise because it is wrong to hurt another person, even if you are upset. Teachers teach that the only way forward is dialogue and that violence is never the solution. Imagine my surprise and disgust when I read the Guardian article reporting that David Lammy advocates relaxing the smacking ban so that “working-class parents should be able to physically discipline their children to prevent them from joining gangs and getting involved in knife crime”.
I’ve taught a lot of students over the years, from all walks of life. I have seen the direct consequences of parents whose only strategy to deal with their child is a smack, who started doing it when their child was three and headstrong, learning the limits. Maybe it was done out of frustration or maybe out of a passed-down belief that a smack teaches discipline and doesn’t harm anyone. Maybe it was done because the parent was tired, alone, helpless. I would argue that when that child was three or four, the strategy worked – the child cried and stopped misbehaving. Who knows why it worked? Humiliation, surprise, fear? The problem occurs later, when the child reaches fifteen and does something wrong or is involved in a difficult situation. What is the default position for a child that has been conditioned to believe that physical force solves life’s problems? That child’s actions are the direct effect of using smacking as a tool to raise your children. There is no thought, no dialogue and no empathy involved. Rarely is physical force used in a measured, intellectual manner. It is used in the moment and requires no thought. The last thing that a community leader should be advocating is the use of physical force to teach the difference between right and wrong because it is a mere sticking-plaster for much wider issues in modern parenting.
I find it particularly problematic that David Lammy would present this idea as a tool for the working class. Why does a single, working mother require permission to chastise her children using her fists? Is there something about her single, working status that means we should not explore other avenues of instilling discipline in her children? That we should not offer her any other kind of support to raise her children? Perhaps if David Lammy was suggesting strategies involving early years education, parenting classes for young teenage mothers, creating links between social services, schools and the health service, I would be more convinced. By reducing knife crime and gang violence to parents being confused about whether to hit their child or not is, quite frankly, insulting. It ignores the enormous impact of poverty, of lack of positive role models for young men, of poor aspirations. It bypasses the important to focus on the ridiculous. By not challenging the idea that rigid rules about smacking caused the riots, he has simplified the most complex societal issue in our recent history to ‘hit or not to hit’. Sometimes, representation as an MP is not just about being the voice of the few, but also about challenging dangerous ideas.
Most of all, David Lammy needs to challenge these ideas because there is the obvious extrapolation that comes from his argument. Society, people cry out, is in need of reform. Allow parents to smack their children, allow teachers to use the cane, bring back hanging. Because obviously, doing these things would mean that immediately children would stop misbehaving at home, all classes in school would be perfectly behaved and no one would commit serious crimes, ever again. Forgive me, but seems that his argument is reminiscent of shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted – much like Nadine Dorries’ argument that teaching abstinence would somehow turn the tide against the sexualisation of society, teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Relaxing legislation on smacking won’t alter the number of rioters on the streets of Tottenham. I would argue that creating a generation of young people who are humiliated and angry may actually increase levels of discontent – combine that with unemployment, lack of aspirations and lack of role models within the community and we have a serious problem on our hands.
I suppose it all comes down to what you think ‘discipline’ actually means. In the early 13th century, it derived from the Latin ‘disciplina’ which meant “instruction given, teaching, learning, knowledge”. Later, it came to mean “military training” in the 14th and 15th centuries, evoking the idea of routine, measurement, standards and uniformity. The idea of ‘discipline’ as punishment is only a small part of its etymology and definition. Its greater part lies in the idea of developing learning, through instruction and through routine. Discipline comes with cognition, self awareness and an ability to question – not through the arbitrary and humiliating use of physical force. I hope there are other community leaders out there who believe the same thing.