Spare the Rod, Cause the Child to Riot?

The underlying cause of the riots that broke out last summer across England has been the subject of fierce debate among politicians, activists, journalists and the like since the chaos erupted. I’m sure like me, you experienced your Facebook and twitter timelines get jam-packed with comments from overnight scholars who wanted to give their two cents on why England had been transformed into what appeared to be a war-zone. You probably heard many of the following riot explanations below:

British youth are frustrated.

The most vulnerable communities in London are lashing out.

The whites have become black.

Pure criminality.

Cuts in public services.

Expression of anger and alienation.

A masked rioter is seen in front of a burning car in Hackney, North London, Britain, 08 August 2011. EPA/KERIM OKTEN

I leaned most towards pure criminality as an explanation of why thousands of youths marauded through British cities looting and firebombing along the way. But I acknowledge that there must be more complex issues to consider to understand what turns someone into a criminal in the first place…

Yet, almost six months after the riots in the UK and all the debates that followed, Labour MP David Lammy said in an interview on LBC radio a few days ago that restrictions on smacking was a contributing factor in the unrest! Although Mr. Lammy has since stated that he didn’t mean to imply a direct connection between the smacking ban and riots, it is tasking to try to take back what we journalists call “the money quote” from people’s minds. His words:

“If parents were allowed to hit their children, the riots wouldn’t have happened”

Yeah, not much room for interpretation with that statement! He may not have meant to provide a clear-cut correlation between smacking and the riots but he hasn’t said much regarding the issue to discount the connection either.

But should he?

Mr. Lammy claimed, ”Many of my constituents came up to me after the riots and blamed the Labour Government, saying: ‘You guys stopped us being able to smack our children’.

”I have to say when this was first raised with me I was pretty disparaging. But I started to listen. These parents are scared to smack their children and paranoid that social workers will get involved and take their children away.”

People can correctly blame the Labour government for making parents think twice before using violence to discipline children because of Labour’s 2004 decision to tighten up the smacking law. Before 2004, parents were able to use “reasonable chastisement”, with certain cases decided by a judge. The introduction of the Children’s Act specified that parents were allowed to smack their children so long as they did so without causing the “reddening of the skin” and left decisions to social workers over whether parents had overstepped the mark. So black people are still basically screwed :s

First of all, I think it’s preposterous to suggest that parent’s confusion over smacking their kids is what sparked off the riots. Mr. Lammy also said working-class parents should be able to physically discipline their children to prevent them from joining gangs and getting involved in knife crime. His statements just reinforce unjust stereotypes about working-class people. Are we to believe that only working-class children require such discipline? I always thought that a stereotypical working-class person hit their children… Now it seems the same set of people are to blame for not hitting their kids enough!

I can’t help but remember a comedy sketch I saw a few years ago by Russel Simmons, which covered the  difference between discipline methods used by different ethnic groups. Check the video out below — *Spoiler alert* — Somebody gonna get a hurt real bad!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yVcePxjFujs 

Following Mr. Lammy’s controversial statements, I went to listen to a lecture by the man himself last night at my old university — the London School of Economics. The title of the talk was, ‘A Tale of Tottenham: race, riots and the future’ and he used the session to reflect on the causes of the riots and what role, racial inequality played in the uprising. It felt great to be back at university and I even had the opportunity to meet some amazing people involved in youth work and general community projects that help combat the kind of anti-social behaviour Mr. Lammy spoke about.

Mr. Lammy quickly addressed the issue of smacking in the lecture by saying that he hadn’t planned to be on the front page of the Daily Mail a week before his public speech at LSE (hmmmmm). He said that he wanted to quickly clarify that he didn’t think that the sole cause of the riots was parents not smacking their kids and that he wouldn’t have written a 250 word book (all proceeds go to charities in Tottenham), if he believed so! He did however defend sparking media attention around the smacking issue, as much of the liberal left in his opinion want to shut down the debate all together.

As the MP for Tottenham — where the riots began, he is probably the best politician to speak about the riots. He didn’t justify the rioters actions but he did put on the table disturbing statistics and information that helped explain why the riots took place. For instance, according to Mr Lammy, (comparing black and white people in the UK) black people are three times as likely to be excluded from school and three times as likely to be unemployed. A shocking 65% of Caribbean kids are raised by single parents (obviously two incomes can do more for a child than one), and black people are still 30 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police!

Many of the areas that encountered rioting had the highest number of unemployment in the country, with people at home on the doll. It’s not rocket science to figure out that it is dangerous to have young adult men with nothing to do during the summer period — what is it about the sunshine and bad behaviour?! Mr. Lammy rightly said that it’s no surprise that 90% of those that took part in the riots were young, male and unemployed.

Also, history reveals that riots have often occurred following a significant event — usually an event that sparks a profound sense of injustice being felt by people. Mr. Lammy said that spark is usually aroused after someone dies at the hands of the police — just as the fatal shooting by police of 29-year-old Mark Duggan sparked off the protests that lead to the unrest.

So there are definitely lots of factors to explain how the riots came about. Mr. Lammy helped me to lean away from believing that the riot began solely because of the criminal mentality of youth and more towards believing it happened because the devil makes work for idle hands and too many youth are idle.

Quick aside: All this smacking talk really got me thinking about how I will discipline my own children. I always say that being a parent is probably on par with being a president in terms of how difficult it is to do the job well. No matter how hard both sets of people work in our interest, there will always be someone pointing out what they deem mistakes. In the case of smacking, many feel that the government should not tell people how to raise their children but as James Madison said, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” We are not angels and therefore need the government to safeguard societies most vulnerable — children.

A growing number of reviews are finding that there are more effective and acceptable methods of disciplining children than smacking; and that Section 58 has improved legal protection for children by restricting the reasonable punishment defence in court proceedings. Personally, I hope I will choose to ban my boy from playing on his game console for a week instead of giving him a slap if he misbehaves….time will tell!

The presence or absence of one form of discipline is unlikely to provide any explanation for August’s events. I believe the discussion of how to control British youth still needs to be somewhere near the top of politician’s agenda. Clarifying if parents can smack their kids  may not be the sole way to avoid another riot in the country but it may be what is needed to spark a serious discussion about practical steps to rid the youth of idleness that can lead to serious trouble.

What do you think about the idea of linking the British riots to smacking? Will you give your child a can of whoop-ass if they step out of line or do you know any interesting (non-violent) methods to discipline children?

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