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Column ‘I find it upsetting that you can legally strike your children as a form of discipline’

Ireland needs to follow the lead of other countries and make corporal punishment illegal, writes Tanya Ward.

TODAY IS UNIVERSAL Children’s Day and we have a lot to be proud of in 2013. Within the last year, the Irish people voted to give children more rights in the Irish Constitution.

The Government is establishing a new Child and Family Agency to revolutionise services for vulnerable children, and we are finally seeing the end of children being detained in adult prisons.

But in many ways we are lagging behind. I am a mum to a three-year old and an eight month old child. And despite their tender ages, I find it upsetting that I can legally strike my own children as a form of discipline.

This is because parents and people caring for children in the home can rely on the common law defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’ when physically punishing children.

Corporal punishment of children

The corporal punishment of children in the home is still a serious problem. Studies show that it can be very harmful to children affecting their self-esteem and their relationship with their parents. Most parents that strike their children do so out of frustration or because they can’t cope.

How is this right though to hit children when it’s not acceptable to hit adults when we’re angry? It sends the wrong message to children that it’s okay to be physically aggressive.

Younger children are most at risk of smacking. In September 2013, the Government published a major longitudinal study, Growing Up in Ireland – Development from Birth to Three Years, which found that 45 per cent of parents of 3-year-olds admitted using “aggressive and punitive techniques such as smacking and shouting” on occasion.

Young children

This finding echoes an earlier study from 2010. Commissioned by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, it reported that 32.4 per cent of parents admitted using physical punishment against a child in the past year. By far the majority of incidents had occurred against children from 5-9 years (37.3 per cent) and 10-14 years (17.6 per cent).

The Children’s Rights Alliance is calling for a ban on physical punishment in the home. As has been the experience of other countries including Sweden, the primary objective of this ban is to alter public attitudes and to send a clear message that hitting children in wrong.

Our experience with the smoking ban shows us how a prohibition on smacking children could work. A ban on corporal punishment was successfully implemented in schools, and if parents were supported with training on non-violent forms of discipline, I have no doubt that abuse levels of children would fall overall in Ireland.

Lagging behind Europe

While corporal punishment is illegal in 22 countries throughout Europe, it’s still permissible in Belgium, Estonia, France, Italy, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Malta, Slovenia, the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. A legal chance in Ireland would encourage these other countries to follow our lead.

In 2006, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its examination of Ireland noted it was “deeply concerned that corporal punishment within the family is still not prohibited by law”.

The Irish Government has so far kept the issue under review. This is despite the fact that a new complaint has been submitted to the European Committee of Social Rights in 2013.

We launched a film this week entitled: Do Children’s Rights Matter? Made by 23 people aged between 15 and 18 years, the film highlights problems faced by young people today in Ireland.

Speaking at the launch, Megan O’Byrne (a member of the youth team) called on the Government ban corporal punishment and to “protect children from all forms of maltreatment perpetrated by parents or those responsible for their care”.

On Universal Children Day, isn’t it about time we listened to Megan and banned corporal punishment in Ireland today?

You can watch Do Children’s Rights Matter here:


Tanya Ward is the Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance.

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