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Is it ever right to smack your child... or someone else's little one?

A supermarket worker in England was suspended for slapping a shopper's young son. But is it ever right to hit someone else's child? Kerry McKittrick asks well-known parents where exactly they stand in the smacking debate.

Many people grew up with the threat of smacking – be it by a cane from a teacher or a slipper from a parent. And smacking continues to make headlines these days with parents being charged with assault for disciplining their children and teachers sacked for raising a hand to a child. Meanwhile, we're all familiar with the sight of a parent chastising a child in the supermarket aisle.

The issue has also inspired books – the novel The Slap, about a woman whose child is smacked by a neighbour, became a bestseller and was turned into a TV drama.

Corporal punishment was banned in state schools in the UK in 1986, with the ban extending to independent schools in 1998. Since then, using physical violence to punish children has become less fashionable, but is still not illegal.

A group of MPs tried to introduce a law banning parents from smacking their children in 2008, but the bill failed in the Commons because of procedural constraints – it didn't even reach a vote.

Parents are currently permitted to give their child "reasonable chastisement" – as long as it does not leave marks. This leaves Britain as one of just five countries within the European Union that hasn't banned smacking.

Last month in England, Selina Johnston called the police after a supermarket worker slapped her four-year-old son, Max, across the back of the legs. The staff member apologised, saying that her actions were misjudged and she was suspended pending a disciplinary hearing.

We ask four parents if they were smacked and how they chastised their own children.

'My husband smacked our children'

Mary Johnston (64) is a journalist and lives in Belfast with her husband, Peter. They have four grown-up children, Simon, Emma-Louise, Peter and Lucy. She says:

My husband was the disciplinarian in the family, which suited me. We wanted our children to have good manners and I can remember when Emma-Louise went off to GMTV in London she discovered none of the people over there had any table manners.

I couldn't slap the children, but I agreed they had to be disciplined, so my husband would have smacked them.

He always explained to them first that they were being punished and why that was. They would get a riding crop on the palm of their hand.

It was never done in anger – there was always a reason for it. Peter even asked them if they agreed that they should be punished and they would agree with him. I had to leave the room though. I couldn't smack them.

The children all went to prep school and they weren't smacked there. Had they been smacked, though, I would have supported the teachers.

In my day, it was a bamboo cane on the hand and if you pulled your hand away then you got two strikes instead of one. It didn't make me hate the teacher that did it, though – actually I thought she was a brilliant teacher!

I don't remember my mum ever smacking me, though she'd threaten to do so all the time. My sister and I would run away and mum would pretend not to catch us.

It's bang out of order for a stranger to slap your child and I'd have been appalled if that had happened to one of my children.

In saying that, I see badly-behaved children all the time running around in restaurants. Our children would never have left the table. I've four grandchildren now and they're all really young, but their parents don't discipline them by smacking. I don't think you can spoil a child with love, but you can do so with things. Consequently, I give my grandchildren as much love and reassurance as I can."

'I hit my son after he ran into the road'

Claire Allan (38) is a novelist. She lives in Londonderry with her husband, Neil, and children Joseph (10) and Cara (5). She says:

My attitude to smacking has changed over time. I would never say I was pro-smacking, but when my wee boy, Joseph, was small he would have got the occasional smack.

I can remember one incident in particular when he ran out to the road in between some parked cars. I had to haul him back and he got a smack then. It was more of reaction of fear than anger on my part. I realised that I wasn't comfortable with that, because I wasn't rational as I was upset and I wasn't in control of my actions.

To be honest, in my experience a smacking doesn't make a blind bit of difference to a child. I think that sitting them down and explaining what they've done wrong and why it's bad is much more effective – even though some people might think that's a wishy-washy approach.

When my daughter Cara was born I made a very conscious decision that there would be no more smacking. The less you do it, the more you realise that you're uncomfortable with it and there are alternatives to a physical punishment.

Sometimes you might want to lose your temper, but that's the absolute worst thing to do with a child.

It must be scary to have the person you trust most in the world towering over you in a rage.

I was walloped as a child and we got it in school until I was in P7. I can remember some teachers being a bit slap-happy, but that was just how they controlled the classroom.

There are more tools in your toolbox to promote learning. I think teachers should be able to give out to the children in their care – if they've done something wrong, then they need to be told off.

Children still need to know their boundaries, but there are other ways to put that across.

The idea of a stranger slapping my child is totally unacceptable – that person would be lucky not to get a slap themselves.

I spend a lot of time looking after nieces and nephews, but they're not my children, so I just wouldn't do anything like that.

It's someone else's child and it's up to the parent to discipline them."

'We remove the laptops'

Tom Elliott is an Ulster Unionist MLA and lives in Enniskillen with his wife Anne and their children Chloe (12) and Adam (9). He says:

Smacking is up to each individual parent. We prefer to punish the kids by removing something they want, such as the Xbox or laptop, as punishment.

That doesn't mean to say that smacking is unheard of in our house, but it wouldn't be the norm.

It's up to a parent how they discipline their own child, but even within that there are barriers and limits. There is a difference between a smack for punishment and one for abuse. I'm from the generation when it was acceptable for teachers to smack and cane you – in fact, it was the norm. I don't remember the system ever being abused. Although teachers can't use physical discipline anymore, they should still be able to punish a child. Parents who think their child can do no wrong put the teachers in a very difficult position.

I certainly don't approve of a stranger like a supermarket cashier smacking a child. It's up to them to warn the parent that their child is misbehaving, but the child isn't in their care, so they have no right."

'Violence is step too far'

Fearghal McKinney (52) is an SDLP MLA and lives in Belfast with his wife Marie and their children Kate (17), Anna (15) and Martha (9). He says:

We don't have a specific policy, but we don't smack in our house. We have conversations about how the kids behave and sometimes a stern look or a stern word can have the same effect.

I don't believe in smacking. Once you resort to hitting, then it means you've reached the end of your tether. I always say, and did so even when the kids were very young; words, words, words.

It means that, instead of crying, or shouting about something, we should sort the issue out by talking about it. It doesn't always work, but I think it teaches the children good habits.

I would not be at all happy if a complete stranger smacked one of the girls. I would explain to them that what they did was wrong and take the issue up with the management of the company involved if it were the case of the cashier in England.

In school, I can remember being walloped by a teacher who then had to apologise for hitting me so hard that he nearly broke my fingers. He immediately knew he had done wrong, though.

By and large, I had a happy time at school and only the odd individual would resort to violence. I think there's a lesson in that for everyone – once you resort to violence, then you've probably gone too far."

Celebrity run-ins with the cane

  • Roald Dahl described the canings he recieved at the English public school Repton in his biography, Boy. He later went on to say of his school days: "Our lives were, quite literally, ruled by fear of the cane."
  • TV presenter Richard Madeley described how his father would thrash him with a bamboo cane normally used in the garden. Sometimes he even drew blood.
  • In his biography, Moab Is My Washpot, Stephen Fry described the frequent beatings he received at the hands of the teachers at Stouts Hill School.
  • Dolly Parton was often given the switch, or the belt, at home. In an interview, she said that her parents were never abusive and she and her siblings didn't get punished as much as they should have.
  • Actress Felicity Kendall recieved corporal punishement at her boarding school in India. Once, her teacher was so angry over her misbehaviour the ruler she was using broke in two.

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