I used to defend smacking children. Now I see it as an abuse of power | Lola Okolosie

My parents smacked me and I never questioned their right to do so. But having my own child changed my mind

Brats do not endear themselves. Even when insulated from children, we nevertheless encounter our fair share of adults whom we suspect got their own way too much of the time as kids. The recent behaviour of some Conservative MPs could be a case in point. The foot-stamping of fanatical Brexiteers, unable to reconcile what they wish for with reality, is not unlike that of a child screaming their insistence that they won’t wear a coat even though it’s 2C outside.

It’s not hard to imagine that they were rarely told no when they were young. Or that the finality of the word was seldom made concrete to them. They have become grandiose and overindulged, and we’re collectively suffering the consequences of their tantrum.

During my 20s, child-free and sanctimonious, I did not suffer brats gladly. I knew many. Adults too entitled to think about the needs of others. Children who just needed “a good clip round the ear” to make them step back in line. Back then I didn’t think smacking was wrong: my parents smacked me as a child. I believed the practice had been demonised by white middle-class people who thought they knew better. Numerous conversations on the subject with my white partner ended in the same way. I’d maintain that smacking was a sort of cultural expression. It was, I’d say, a practice permissible in many working-class immigrant cultures yet now policed by a society that disparaged them. Harrumphing in a manner not dissimilar to the political-correctness-gone-mad brigade, I’d sometimes say smacking was actually a sign of my parents’ love for me.

Some of my harshest punishments came about because, all too aware of our society’s inherent racism, they did love me and wanted me to do and be better in an environment that stacked the odds against me. I believed this was the right strategy because they did. No wonder, then, that I felt personally affronted by bratty children. Kids cossetted in a way that I thought black working-class children weren’t allowed to be. They could be wayward while we always had to yield to the will of our parents.

And then, I had my own children. With the power now vested in me by the tiny person who called me Mummy, I found myself sickened after those moments when frustration and sleeplessness spilled over into shouting. I’d see my son look at me with something near terror and I’d be stunned into remembering what it had sometimes felt like to be smacked by my parents. That at times, I had felt hated. That I was bad. That the badness was something to be exorcised through pain. Or the reverse, that goodness could be smacked into me. After all, as the Bible says, spare the rod and spoil the child.

Around this time, I picked up bell hook’s All About Love. She writes about the voicelessness of children, of how “in our culture the private family dwelling is the one institutionalised sphere of power that can easily be autocratic and fascistic”. She recounts a discussion with “mostly educated, well-paid professionals”, a multigenerational, multiracial group of people, describing them all as broadly in favour of smacking. One young mother, hooks recalls, brags to the gathering about how “she did not hit her small son but instead would ‘clamp down on his flesh, pinching him until he got the message’”. It is then that hooks comments: “Had we all been listening to a man tell us that every time his wife or girlfriend does something he does not like he just clamps down on her flesh, pinching her as hard as he can, everyone would have been appalled.”

On reading those words I came to understand that my own feelings of regret after losing my temper were like those of a perpetrator after physically abusing a partner. I indulged the idea that this was something my child had forced me to do in spite of myself. I’m familiar with these justifications for abuse; to see them play out in me was frightening.

Smacking is a bridge I have chosen not to cross, and that decision has led me to consider the other forms of coercion exercised over children; the pinches, too-tight grips or verbal shaming. They are too often disciplined because parents don’t want to be perceived as weak-willed and indulgent. We do it so we are seen to be doing it, not always in order to benefit our children.

This is a kind of machismo, an invocation of hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake. A demand for obedience and compliance, in the guise of showing respect, becomes instead a way of displaying power. I want to teach my children that their will needs to be respected as much as mine. It’s the least I can do.

• Lola Okolosie is an English teacher


Lola Okolosie

The GuardianTramp

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