This article is about parenting and physical punishment (smacking), and the laws government has on physical punishment.

Source: The Monthly Record, 1992. 2 pages.

The Smacking Debate

In my daily paper, a debate on whether paren­tal smacking of a child should be banned has been conducted. This has no doubt been occasioned by a document recently produced by the Scottish Law Commission, which touches on the subject. But there is much more to it than that.

There is a myriad of con­siderations that spring to mind in connection with this whole debate and with the attempts to have smacking banned entirely. To be selec­tive, we want to look at this issue bearing in mind that many children are physically abused by their parents — a factor which for many is the predominant consideration is this matter.

True Premises False Conclusion🔗

There's an argument against smacking which runs something like this: "some parents abuse their children by physically punishing them too severely, therefore all parents must be prohibited from physically punishing their children". That is not a type of argument we are prepared to accept.

We never accept it — well, hardly ever — when it is applied to other areas of life. If we did we would be con­strained to adopt the follow­ing positions: Some people abuse alcohol, therefore everyone must be prohibited from using alcohol. Some people are influenced to evil by modern music, therefore modern music is a Bad Thing. Some ministers abuse their ministerial authority, therefore no minister should enjoy authority.

The premise in each of these cases is true: the con­clusion is false. The answer to the abuse in each case lies in teaching a greater sense of responsibility rather than depriving all involved of their due responsibility.

We have no difficulty in telling parents what is the source of a proper sense of responsibility.

Parental Power🔗

God rules; but he has delegated his authority to others, in different ways and to different degrees.

To each individual, he has given the right to use the material resources of this world which he made. To the eldership of the church, he has granted, through his provision of varied gifts, the right to exercise spiritual rule over his people. To the civil authorities a corresponding authority has been given in secular things, for "the authorities that exist are established by God: there is no authority except that which God has established" (Romans 13:1). That civil authority includes the "power of the sword" (Romans 13:4) — the right to punish those who infringe its laws. Similarly, within the family, parental authority over the children exists by divine appointment.

There are two general ten­dencies working in society relative to this issue. Firstly, the whole concept of the "power of the sword" or the right to punish has been called in question. The necessity for remedial treat­ment has, quite rightly, been stressed, but the usefulness of inflicting pain in some restricted form and to this end has not been accepted. Secondly, there has been an assumption by the state of functions that used to belong to the family.

These two general tenden­cies work together in the present campaign for the banning of smacking. It is not surprising if a practice which is based on parental authority and the infliction of physical pain is under attack. We would do well to recognise the wider currents of thought of which the anti-smacking movement is but a small eddy. There are greater issues at stake in this matter: these are the subjects that we must address rather than simply their particular manifestation in this specific matter.

The problem is that there is a basic inability to distin­guish between punishment and abuse. In the minds of too many physical punish­ment is physical abuse. Yet we make a similar distinction in other areas of life. If someone robs me of 25% of my income it is theft: but not if the agent is the Inland Revenue. If someone deprives me of my liberty, it is kidnapping: but not if that deprivation comes by order of a duly constituted court of law. An action which in one set of circumstances is abuse is legitimate punishment when backed up by lawfully constituted authority.

The principles which we seek to uphold do not encourage but rather dis­courage parental abuse of children. Yes, we acknowledge that punishing children is a right that par­ents have but one which must be exercised in a limited, controlled and reasonable fashion. But the recognition of that right brings with it also an aware­ness of the source from which that right is derived — it is a God-delegated respon­sibility. It is this sense of accountability towards God for the fulfilment of the parental task which brings in turn a sense of restraint. Parents dare not go beyond proper limits in the use of the power to punish because these limits are God's limits. That is the perspective that we wish to promote: it is one that both allows parents to punish and at the same time prevents abuse.


If we wish to restrict child abuse, we cannot permit practices inconsistent with that goal. Yet at this moment when there is agita­tion to prevent the physical abuse of children, the law permits a child to be severely physically assaulted.

Poison and the knife are routinely applied to some children. This is done at a very early stage when chil­dren are at their most vulner­able. It is, moreover, applied without warning, and the process is conducted with the express purpose of destroy­ing life. Often the excuses used to justify this procedure are flimsy and selfish. I refer to the laws which permit abortions to be performed on healthy children simply because they are an embarrassment or an incon­venience to one or both of their parents, or even to their grandparents.

These barbarities remain permitted, yet, if some folks have their way, a simple smack would not be lawful — even when this is done at a later stage of the child's development; after due warning; in the context of parental love and concern; and for the best possible motive in mind: the correc­tion of the child involved. What an inconsistency!

We have to send a clear message that physical abuse of children is utterly unac­ceptable. But why turn attention to the second scenario above where pain inflicted is minimal and posi­tively directed? Why not curb the unrestrained and destructive violence done by parents to unborn children?

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