Denise Moore from Bridgend was one of three students who saw 50 incidents of children being smacked in an hour during a survey.
Denise is one of the students at IT Sligo who are to carry out a detailed survey to assess the extent of corporal punishment in the home, after an observational study at three city shopping centres suggested that smacking by parents is widespread.
The three students on the Early Childhood Care and Education programme at IT Sligo are campaigning for an outright ban on smacking and are also launching a Facebook and social media campaign in their bid to have the law changed.
“As part of our studies in the module Children and Social Policy, we carried out an observational study over just one hour at three Sligo shopping centres – Tesco, the Quayside and Johnston Court – and over one hour we saw more than 50 incidents where parents smacked their children, “explained Carina Lang (31) from Grange, Co Sligo, a third year student on the honours ECCE programme.
She and fellow students Denise and Martin Murray from Roscommon interviewed a small number of parents who were pro and anti-smacking and also got the views of a social worker and a five year old child.
One parent said that “a tap on the leg” worked when the child would not respond to anything else or was doing something dangerous.
A father who was anti-smacking said that because he had a short fuse he knew that if smacking became part of the day to day discipline at home “I would lash out in frustration and I don’t think that would be helpful”.
A five year old told the researchers that he did not like being smacked as it made him sad. He told the students that he could not understand why he could not hit his parents back. “He also said that he would prefer to be smacked than to be without his John Deer tractor for the day”, the study noted.
The social worker who advises parents on alternative means of disciplining children said she has had to ask parents whether they use “an open hand or a closed fist”. She told the researchers that in some communities, physical punishment was “the rule rather than the exception”.
“Our aim is to raise awareness about this issue,” said Lang. The students pointed out that since smacking by parents was outlawed in Sweden 30 years ago, crime rates there have fallen.
They want the government to impose a ban – and to impose penalties such as jail sentences for serious breaches.
The students are setting up Facebook page and website devoted to this issue and also plan to address parenting groups at family resource centres, starting in counties Sligo, Roscommon and Donegal.
“We believe we can reach thousands of people through social media. It is a better way than sitting at a conference just lecturing people,” said Lang.
The three students will now do a comprehensive study involving thousands of people in a bid to gauge attitudes to corporal punishment in the home. They hope to have this completed by May.
“We believe what is needed is a change of mind-set just as there was with drink driving,” said Lang. “ You are supposed to have a licence to have a dog and if you abuse it you could be brought to court and fined but people can smack a child and not give it a second thought.”
The students are calling on the government to make parenting classes including a session on the impact of corporal punishment, mandatory as part of pre-natal classes.
“We are being trained to work with children in that very precious 0 to 6 age group and we feel really strongly that it should not be lawful for parents to hit children but we also think parents need help and should be trained in how to discipline their children”, said Lang.
While corporal punishment in school was banned in 1982, the report pointed out that under the Children’s Act 1908 it is lawful for a parent to use “reasonable and moderate chastisement” when disciplining a child. “The question arises –what constitutes reasonable chastisement – there is no scale or gradient,” said Lang.
The students’ lecturer Dr John Pender believes that this research is timely. “You only have to look at the recent debate in the UK linking smacking with last summer’s widespread riots in British cities to get some idea of the extent of polarised opinion on this issue,” said Dr Pender. “Out of 49 members on the Council of Europe, 22 countries have banned smacking children. Ireland is looking increasingly isolated on this issue. The forthcoming proposed referendum on inclusion of children’s rights in the constitution must grapple with this human rights violation”.