The Right Coast

July 07, 2004
Spare the Rod, Spoil the ....
By Gail Heriot

The movement to prohibit British parents from spanking their children appears to have been thwarted in the House of Lords.

Here's the story as a understand it: A century-old British statute codifies the traditional right of parents to engage in the "reasonable chastisement" of their children. Many British legislators wanted to repeal that statute and promulgate instead a law that would have banned spankings and similar corporal punishments. Tony Blair opposed that move and instead offered a compromise bill that permits parents a right to administer such punishments only if they cause no physical or mental harm. That compromise bill has now passed the House of Lords.

There are lots of interesting issues here. But I would like to comment on just one of them--an argument made in favor of the spanking ban that particularly annoys me. Some legislators have argued the point in terms of equality of rights: Existing British law gives children fewer rights in this area than adults. The assumption is apparently that such inequality should not be tolerated. This is a fancy way of saying that the law allows a mother to turn her unruly five-year-old over her knee, but it does not permit her to do the same to her car mechanic, even upon similar provocation.

The notion that children should receive precisely the same rights as adults in this area is laughable. Applying an adult standard to little Johnny (or little Ian) wouldn't simply mean that Mom can't spank him without his consent. Mom wouldn't be able to comb his hair, carry him off to bed or make him swallow his castor oil if he makes his objections clear. Does anyone imagine that Mom would not be guilty of an assault and battery against her car mechanic if she insisted on combing his hair over his objections? The standards are inherently different. The question is where the line should be drawn for children and introducing the issue of equality of rights only clouds that issue.