Friday, 5 August 2011

Is it ever right to smack a child?

Today's guest post is from novelist Christopher Wakling. In it, he asks the question few parents can't have at least considered at some time or another: is it ever right to smack a child? His answer?

"I don’t know.

That’s why I’ve written a book about it, a novel called WHAT I DID. 

Good novels don’t have the answers.  They explore.  They put the question well.

WHAT I DID is narrated by Billy.  He’s six.  The opening sees him run away from his father and into a busy road.  When Billy’s dad catches up with him he smacks him.  Hard.  In public.  A passer by intervenes; soon the social services are involved.

Why did I write WHAT I DID?

When I was growing up, parents smacked naughty children.  It happened to me, I’m told, though I don’t really recall it.  But I do remember ‘a smack’ being there as the ultimate sanction, the nuclear bomb.

By the time I became a parent attitudes had shifted.  Holding my newborn son, the answer seemed obvious.  Violence against children?  Or the threat of violence.  Just plain wrong.

Cut to two-and-a-half years later, in a queue to see the T-Rex at the National History Museum.  The same son, in a rage, kicked my pregnant wife in the stomach.  I found I’d shifted camp.  I smacked him, and hated myself for it.

But was it really wrong?  Hell, I’d ‘restrained’ him before then.  I’d shut him in his room; I’d sat him down hard on the pointless ‘naughty step’.  Perhaps more damagingly, I’d shouted at him, bringing down thirty-five years of invective on his uncomprehending head. 

None of those punishments worked.  The smack cut through the fog.  It spoke in the present tense and my son understood.  Don’t do that ever again.

And yet, and yet.  I’m a loving father.  My children are the heart of my world.  To see my son flinch from me after I smacked him made me feel physically sick.

If I’d come to a coherent conclusion one way or the other there would have been no point in writing the novel.  WHAT I DID is about much more than smacking: it’s about fatherhood, the boundary between the state and the family, and being six.  But corporal punishment of children lies at the book’s heart, and since writing it I’ve learned that most people have a strong opinion on the subject. 

If the book makes them question it, well that’s a good thing."

WHAT I DID was published by John Murray yesterday and is available to buy on Amazon.

Twitter: @chriswakling

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