Silhouette of mother smacking child

Last week the Guardian reported that a woman who was filmed smacking her overwrought five year old ‘at least four times’ on the backside has been sentenced to a six-month community order. The chairman of the bench declared that she had to be 'punished'.

The worst thing about corporal punishment is that it degrades and humiliates the victim. But the ‘punishment’ meted out by the court to the child’s mother was also degrading and humiliating, and all the more so for having been brought about by her partner’s secret filming of this particular incident, which he claimed was one of many. 

Humiliation heaped on humiliation seems to be what this punishment was designed to inflict, made all the worse for being reported in the press. We can only imagine what all three of the people involved – the parents and the child – will be having to deal with emotionally over the coming months, as a result of the humiliation inflicted through it, if they want their child to emerge from the experience undamaged.
The remorse and recrimination which will surely follow begs the question: does the public and prolonged humiliation of the perpetrator really make for healing and for the transformation of this particular dysfunctional family relationship, especially the one which exists between the mother and her child? I am not arguing that the courts should uphold indiscriminate smacking.  My point is that when a mother (who is beside herself with stress, and possibly other emotional and physical issues) smacks a five year old who is in the extreme throes of a tantrum, she should not be criminalised.

Smacking is becoming taboo. With taboos comes hypocrisy.  Smacking is not something you talk about very much, especially if you have resorted to it from time to time. In the context of family relationships, we can be one thing in public – gentle and loving parents, while being another in private – people with human emotions which can get out of hand and do real and lasting damage if forgiveness and healing are not allowed to take place between those involved.  Furthermore, violent actions are seldom entirely the fault of one person, although this in no way justifies them. We are all responsible for violence because we are a violent society; to the extent that when we are not actually engaging in violent actions or speech, we are being entertained or titillated by violence through what we read or watch.

Taking a mother to court for smacking, especially in this particular instance, suggests that we are all caught up in a degree of hypocrisy concerning this area of domestic violence. The hypocrisy stems partly from the confusion which exists between the generations regarding the way corporal punishment is to be used, if at all. Thirty years ago smacking was permissible, though not regarded as particularly desirable. Before that, corporal punishment was frequently meted out in schools and occasional incidents of smacking,  in a normal family environment,  were quickly forgotten. There is also the deeper implication of collective fear and self doubt about the extent to which our own fascination with violence makes for a vicarious enjoyment of seeing that, in incidents like the one described in the Guardian, ‘justice has been done’.

It is this which has made the article in question newsworthy and which gives all of us permission to condemn the mother’s regrettable actions while at the same time failing to question the real motives which may have lain behind the partner’s filming of the incident. Of course he was concerned about the child’s safety and well being, but part of that safety and well being must surely lie in taking responsibility for the mother. One cannot help but wonder what else had been going on that day, and perhaps for many days, which caused this woman to lose control of herself in dealing with a five year old’s tantrum? And what other complex political motives lay behind the court’s sentencing?

In all of this I am reminded of an incident in the life of Jesus when a woman ‘caught’ (today there would have been hidden cameras) in adultery, the worst of crimes in the socio-religious context of the day, was dragged before him for a ‘verdict’ before being stoned. But his verdict came as a question: 'Which of you is without sin? Let him be the one to cast the first stone.'

The woman’s accusers were quite probably adulterers themselves, but that is not the only sin of which they were guilty. They had other reasons for wanting to publicly denounce and humiliate her. Some of these stemmed from the fear of having to come to terms with their own double standards, and duplicity.

The woman served as a scapegoat for those thoughts and actions of which they were ashamed, so it mattered to them that someone else be ’punished’.  Is there not something comparable going on in the case of the woman sentenced to six months unpaid work for smacking her five year old?