Part of the puzzle: how equal protection can be part of a revolution of love & equality for children

“You haven’t hit me in a while Dad!” said my 10 year old self to my stepdad.
“That’s because you’ve not given me a reason to hit you,” he replied.

Little did I know that my Nana had threatened him after she found out that I’d been hurt really badly. I had a few weeks free from gut-wrenching fear and raised palm prints on my legs. That was a confusing period of time. I felt privileged just not being hurt for a while.

I know there are many loving families out there that smack and use physical punishment with their children, thinking that this is the right thing to do. But for me, smacking was part of a continuum of violence when I was growing up.

It started with little smacks, then escalated to belts, then knives. To this day, I still feel uneasy around knives. Smacking didn’t just leave marks on my skin, it left me with emotional scarring. Being hurt as a child changed how I viewed the world, affected my ability to trust adults and the fabric of my confidence was left fragile, easily torn.

We have a culture that justifies assaulting children. In Scots law, there is a defence of ‘justifiable assault’ that enables parents and carers to use physical punishment.

My worry is that there are many children who are being abused who will feel like they can’t speak out because violence of all different shapes and forms is a normal part of our culture. I was shocked when my step Dad didn’t hit me. Smacking was very much a part of my child-hood and it was widely accepted as part of life in the community I grew up in. I remember having chats with friends about having to rush home or we’d ‘get a smack’ or ‘a leathering’.

But what are we teaching children about conflict resolution? How can an adult smack a child then teach them about managing conflict and anger appropriately? It’s a confusing contradiction and children need clear and consistent boundaries that make them feel safe. If we don’t have a clear line on this there is a danger that many children will grow up without a clear understanding that they have a right to live free from any form of violence or abuse.

If I didn’t go into care I would have believed that violence was just a normal part of growing up.

My experience is only one account of what physical punishment feels like but it is backed up by robust evidence telling us that physical punishment has the potential to cause serious harm to children. And, crucially, the evidence also tells us that it just doesn’t work. Children don’t tend to associate the smack with their behaviour. How can a light smack make a child feel safe?

An independent review commissioned in 2015 by the Children’s Commissioner, Children 1st, NSPCC Scotland and Banardo’s Scotland found consistent evidence from 98 studies that the use of physical punishment can increase problematic behaviour and damage family relationships. There were also clear links between physical punishment and child maltreatment. Dr Elizabeth Gershoff carried out research over a 50 year period, looking at studies with more than 160,000 children and found that physical punishment had a similar effect to physical abuse.

John Finnie’s proposed Members Bill on Equal Protection aims to use all of this research and learning about the impact of physical punishment to make sure that Scots Law reflects the childhood experience we want to give children in Scotland.

This is not about making judgements about previous parenting choices. I know that many of the smacks that happened in my community were not acts of child abuse or deliberate at-tempts to cause harm. It was parents using what they felt was an acceptable behaviour modification tool. But it is the Government’s responsibility to provide parents with up to date information to help them make the best and most informed parenting choices that they can.

The removal of the legal defence of “justifiable assault” will have a direct impact on childhood experience in Scotland. As a society we will be clear that violence is not acceptable. It will also send a clear message about how much we value our children, how much we care and want to protect our children from violence.

Many people say that they use a “lovin” smack as part of their parenting strategies. But a smack never made me feel loved, it was a sharp, cold feeling that hurt. I remember repeating the words ‘I’m sorry’ thousands of times and I learned how to survive, to say ‘thank you’ and just be grateful for being alive.

When I was smacked it filled me with anger that bubbled away for years. It left me to carry a huge ball of rage that took years for me to really understand. It made me put barriers up in relationships and left me with a feeling that I was deserving of pain. My self-worth and confidence was battered. Even at the highest points in my life I’ve had moments of panic that I could lose it all, like the time my stepdad stopped hurting me and I worried that it would be short lived.

After reading this article I encourage you to ask a child how love feels. I bet they would say it feels warm and fuzzy, protected, calm, safe and secure. A smack would not be in that description.

A group of care experienced children in Fife, as part of the Children’s Parliament’s Seen and Heard project, talked about what love feels like: “When I feel loved it’s soft and cuddly. I need to be free and for consequences to be fair—that feels like loved to me.”

Over the last two years I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on my childhood before, and during care. I remember meeting my children’s rights worker, Lorraine, just six months before leaving care and telling her about my experiences. Lorraine advocated on my behalf, informing me of my rights and telling me that I deserved to be heard, to feel safe and be valued. Whenever I was with Lorraine she left me feeling valued and empowered. Lorraine taught me that children are the gift we give to the future.

Relationships like this one were key to me finding out that I was a person deserving of love. Love made me grow, understand and make sense of my childhood. Love also gave me the strength to be myself and take a risk when I knew it was time to change direction.

We need a revolution of love and equality in Scotland. A movement of compassion and change that is driven by listening to what our children tell us. Part of this revolution is already happening. Last year the First Minister announced a root and branch review of the care system because she listened to the voices of children and young people. It was no tokenistic gesture, this is meaningful change. Fiona Duncan, the Chair, says that the “voices of children and young people remain at the heart of the review”. We need more movements like this, where children and young people are at the heart of the discussion, determining the agenda, the vision and an instrumental part of the change.

When I was 15 I was part of steering groups and focus groups. I felt valued but didn’t see change happen. Change is happening now. We need to continue to work to recognise that the voices of children and young people are important and their views are being taken into account.

The Scottish Youth Parliament has spoken out loudly and passionately in full support of the Equal Protection Bill. Children 1st and the Children’s Parliament worked in partnership with children to capture their views in a series of films called “Pushing the Boundaries.” One child said “Hitting makes me feel bad in my heart”. As adults we have a responsibility to really hear what this child is telling us about physical punishment and we need to act.

The Equal Protection Bill is a watershed moment in Scottish politics. It allows politicians to demonstrate that they are taking what children tell them seriously. Supporting this Bill means that we have the chance to make childhood a space where harm has no place, where children feel loved, safe and secure. We must tackle abuse and oppression, making childhood in Scotland a place where children thrive. This Bill is clear that violence of any kind is never okay.

Importantly, the move to remove the legal defence of ‘justifiable assault’ is supported overwhelmingly by professional organisations that work with children and families, including Social Work Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. When the Bill is passed it will empower parents to make informed choices about how to give children the best start in life.

So what impact would a law change have made to me?

As a child this change in the law might have saved me from years of abuse. Growing up in the 90’s in a small town I might have been able to see that what was happening to me was not a normal part of growing up. Maybe I could have told someone, knowing that I would be heard.

The way we value, listen and champion our children is crucial to the future of our country. I believe that we are at a real turning point in Scotland, at the beginning of a revolution of compassion. There is a radical change happening in how we are listening to the voices of children and young people. And courageous voices are speaking out about what sort of Scotland they want to grow up in.

Politicians often talk about making Scotland the best place in the world to grow up. But children and young people need to be at the heart of this, we need to listen to them. Children are the most important people in our society, our children deserve nothing less than a country that puts them first. I believe that we can build a Scotland where children feel safe, loved and truly empowered. I want to be a part of that.

Written by Laura Beveridge

Until recently Laura worked for Who Cares? Scotland. Laura is currently an independent consultant and speaker, passionate about speaking out alongside children and young people in Scotland. Laura writes a regular column for Holyrood Magazine, and this article is adapted from one of her columns.




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