My time on the naughty step smacks of justice

Ellen and her son

Ellen and her son - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

I DID an awful thing last week. I smacked my child for the first time.

Well, I say smack... it was more of a light tap on the backside, but nevertheless it made me feel dreadfully ashamed.

Here is what happened.

My son, who is three, had been playing up. In the morning he threw my new suede pumps into the paddling pool. Then he stripped off his clothes and lobbed his pants over the fence. When my neighbour returned them an hour later, my son appeared at the front door, wiggling his bare bottom at her.

After lunch we went to Ipswich Marks and Spencer. He ran away and after 10 minutes of frantic searching I found him in the lingerie department, wearing a 34DD lacy white bra and entertaining two old ladies with a song about boobies. In the food department he tried to use a cantaloupe melon as a football before helping himself to a pastry from the bakery area.

It would be a monumental understatement to say I was feeling stressed by the time we went to pick up my daughter from school.

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Holding hands, we were heading towards the playground when, quite suddenly, he wriggled out of my grip and dashed out into the road. I screamed, a car (actually only going at a snail’s pace) came to an abrupt halt and my son froze just metres from its bumper.

And that’s when it happened.

A combination of fright, relief and pure fury made me hoick him out of the street by his arm and admonish him with a slap to the backside before we both burst into tears. Many of my older readers might think this was an appropriate response, given the circumstances. Indeed, this type of corporal punishment was perfectly acceptable a generation ago. But these days it is a real no-no.

In fact, some parents have faced the justice system for lashing out and causing a reddening of the skin. The law in the UK states that mild smacking is permitted. But, in 2004, the Children’s Act clarified that defence by making any hitting that causes bruising, swelling, cuts, grazes or scratches punishable with up to five years in jail.

In October 2008, a cross-party group of MPs tried to change the law to introduce an all-out ban on parents smacking their children. But they faced a backbench rebellion over the issue and surveys suggested the majority of parents were opposed to the idea.

Can I just say here that, despite my recent hiccup, I am anti smacking.

When our daughter was born six years ago, my husband and I decided we would not use this form of discipline – believing that smacking crossed a very clear line. If we smacked our children, would they then grow up to think it was OK to hit others? Would they think that they inhabited a world in which, if they pushed it too far, physical pain would be inflicted? Would they become less honest about their faults and indiscretions as a result, perhaps encouraging them to lie? If a recent study is to be believed, our worries were all whimsical nonsense, however. It concluded that, when a child feels otherwise loved, a parental smack won’t traumatise them. It would simply send out a clear message: you’ve been naughty, so I’m punishing you. Far more effective than reward charts and time out.

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham, latched on to this after last year’s riots, claiming they could have been avoided if the young people involved had known the firm hand of discipline.

Mr Lammy, who admitted to smacking his three- and five-year-old sons, went on to say that working-class parents in particular had problems raising children “with knives, gangs and the dangers of violent crime just outside the window” when they “no longer felt sovereign in their own homes”.

I’m not sure why he was excluding middle-class parents from this, although maybe it’s because increasing numbers of them are turning to prescription pills to help them control their undisciplined youngsters instead.

The number of prescriptions to treat ADHD or attention deficit hyperactive disorder leapt from 158,000 in 1999 to 661,463 in 2010.

This mysterious ailment made a sudden appearance among British schoolchildren in the early 1990s. Before that, it was practically unheard of and it remains so in many countries where you would struggle to get a doctor to agree that a child who ran riot was anything other than extremely badly behaved.

The drugs used to treat it can cause a multitude of side-effects but, prescribed correctly, they are deemed very effective.

However, with the rising numbers of children being diagnosed each year, it seems to me that far too many parents are willing to have their kids labelled with a psychiatric illness than they are to find an alternative way to tackle just plain naughtiness.

I’m certainly not advocating that they smack instead, by the way. I still believe smacking is ineffective and unnecessary, and I remain ashamed of my reaction last week.

But what I am saying is that all too often parents (myself included) look for a quick fix – be that through a bottle of pills or a short, sharp tap on the bottom of a boisterous boy. A boy, I might add, who clearly knows the value of the naughty step – somewhere he told me I must sit on our return from school.

“It is wrong to smack,” he said contritely, after he had sat beside me for three minutes – his punishment for running into the road. “You have to stay there quietly for one minute for every year you’ve been alive.”

And I was more than happy to oblige. It was the most peaceful half hour I’ve had in a long time.

Please email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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