2007 - 2022

Justifiable Assault

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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Comments (19)

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  1. Jim says:

    I recall one particular night being taken out of our house and hidden with one of my aunties as my dad was going to “gut me” with a hunting knife. I slept there for the night after my gran calmed him down. I am often told I was too soft with my own children, but I would never let them live with the climate of fear and violence that I grew up with.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    An excellent article and a moving account. In my view the case Mr Finnie is making is unanswerable and it ought to have been in place decades ago. Corporal punishment was abolished in schools in 1982, so we ought to have made a wholesale change then.

    Sadly, when I read Ms Beveridge’s account, I have heard the same many times during my life. In the 1940s and 50s my parents were unusual in that they did not use physical punishment on me. Beating of children – and wives – was common knowledge and most of the people, at best, just closed their ears to it at worst, they saw people like my parents as weak links in the buttresses of ‘DISCIPLINE’.

    With the abolition of corporal punishment in schools 35 years ago, there are very few people under the age of 50 who have experienced physical punishment in schools, although some continue to experience it at home. However, a substantial proportion of our population has seen that there are alternatives. Many of us have been overseas and have seen in many European countries how valued young people are. Drama and documentaries on TV and radio have pointed up the nasty underbelly.

    I think that the hegemony is for support for Mr Finnie.

  3. Jim Bennett says:

    Wonderfully well written article.

  4. Fay Kennedy says:

    This resonated very powerfully for me on a personal level and how that thinking still prevails of spare the rod and spoil the child. Absolutely destroy the child more likely. The Anglo Saxon Celt model for child rearing is barbaric and that is a euphemism. That it’s still a minority who are the privileged few who reap the benefits of decent child rearing practices shows how far we have to go to elevate the child into the centre of our community not an object to be used and abused. So much talent is wasted and so many lives ruined. I am in my eighth decade and still recovering. It’s not rocket science to know how natural it is for children to thrive on love and respect. There are too many places where children are treated so awful. It takes a life time to recover and the loss to the community is disgraceful. I wish more than anything that the children of Scotland are given their due rights of love and respect.

  5. DialMforMurdo says:

    I reckon it was after my third hospitalisation before the age of twelve that it first started to dawn on me that maybe my step-father wasn’t too keen on me. Being referred to as ‘your child’ was probably the biggest hint that he wasn’t happy about my mother having another mans child in his home. He graduated from the back of a wooden hairbrush through an amazing period of swishing bamboo canes until such time as I grew bigger and fists and feet were deemed more appropriate.

    Fay Kennedy, above, is bang on right, it takes a lifetime to recover, 45 years on and I can still here the swish of the bamboo cane and the welts the blows raised on my legs and backside. I’ll never forget. That’s the physical abuse, the rest I’ll never be able to talk about, even pseudonymously.

    Breaking the cycle of violence, when you’ve been brought up on kicks and punches controlling the rage that appears out of nowhere for the slightest indiscretions or perceived slights, is so fucking hard to overcome. Anger is instinctive. My way past it was to bring my kids up with diluted sarcasm and carefully listening. It kind of worked. The alternative was unthinkable.

  6. MVH says:

    Too right. All of it.

  7. Alba woman says:

    It is excellent human progress that folk in Scotland will have to ask themselves the question of the worth of using physical violence upon their children. The excellent article and comments very powerfully speak of the horrendous outcomes of adult violence upon children.

    Folk would take issue with teachers and neighbours if their children were belted or smacked round the head. Yet, behind closed doors they belted and violently smacked, their own children. What was that all about?

    This is a very good day for the children of Scotland…..Hands Off!

  8. Alan Crocket says:

    The treatment complained of in this article and in the comments so far is already criminal. Do the writers maintain that banning all physical chastisement, however light, will cut down the brutality and the cruel excesses? Do they regard all smacking whatsover as unacceptable? Have they considered the possible abusive effect of non-physical attempts at enforcing behaviour in children, or would they rule out punishment entirely, and if so, would they relieve parents of any responsibility for their children’s behaviour?

    1. Wul says:


      Regarding your desire for clarification about “physical chastisement however light” of children.

      A simple test is: If you were at work, would you do it to another adult?

      Children don’t really need “punished”. If you love them and let them know you love them by demonstrating it and telling them so, then all you really need to do is tell them off when they misbehave. If they are very small and being persistent in physical misbehaviour you can pick them up and move them away telling them why they shouldn’t behave that way.

      When you hit a child, however “lightly” they experience rage, shame, embarrassment, sadness, humiliation and a burning desire for revenge (often taken out on weaker children). These feelings are not conducive to good social relations which is after all what you are hoping to encourage.

      If someone bigger and stronger than you smacks you in public how will you feel? A child feels exactly the same way. Don’t do it.

      1. Alan Crocket says:

        OK, let’s agree to differ on best practice and on cause and effect. But should the regime you argue for be enforced on every parent by the criminal law?

        1. Wul says:

          Raise kids however you want, just don’t hit them.

          You make a good point about non-physical punishment, it can be very damaging. However the effect of hitting a child goes way, way beyond the actual physical bodily hurt inflicted, it lives on in memory and emotional damage.

          Is it OK to hit someone smaller & weaker than yourself?

          If you were a child who is hit by a parent would it help you or hinder you if their actions were clearly against the law? Why do you want to hit children ?

          Yes it should be the same law for children as adults. No brainer.

          I can’t understand why folk who think a new law “won’t work in practice” don’t just look at other countries with similar laws . Does it work in other European countries where hitting a child is illegal? How to they manage it? Are their prisons full of harassed parents who smacked a toddler’s legs in the supermarket?

          1. Alan Crocket says:

            We’ll never agree on how children differ or don’t differ from adults, their relative rights and responsibilities, and so on. I confess I’m not in the habit of treating them the same, but I may try a different approach the next time I am confronted by my 38 year-old son having a screaming fit in the supermarket because his elderly mother won’t buy him a bar of chocolate.
            If the new law, which will probably come in, has the effect of reducing the incidence of what are already criminal assaults by parents on children, which it may well do, then so much the better, and it seems to be the picture in other European countries. But that is an issue of social engineering, in order to speed up and reinforce a change in social attitudes which is already underway, as is the case here too. It doesn’t not go to the ethics of it.
            I’m not saying that parents should smack their kids, just that in moderation it can be a perfectly proper, perfectly normal thing to do, and not against an enlightened human nature, in which case criminalizing it becomes a kind of artificial constraint.

        2. Wul says:

          Don’t twist my words. I did not say that children should be treated the same as adults. I said that it should be the same law in terms of protecting children from being hit.

          Yes, children should be treated differently to adults; they need more understanding, more attention, more reassurance and more patience. And yes, they need limits imposed and limits help them to feel safe and make sense of the world.

          Don’t kid yourself. If you hit a child you have lost it. You’ve lost your temper, you have run out of tactics to get them to behave and you are hitting them to vent your frustration, induce shock and assert your power & control. You are only doing it because they are smaller, weaker and less articulate than you and you know they have no legal redress against you.

          I suspect that you are looking for someone to make you feel better about using physical punishment on your child. I can’t help you with that.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    Anecdotally: I have discussed this issue with adults who professed the like “never did me any harm”. They tended to be pro-hierarchy with military links, support for rank-has-its-privileges and a fairly unquestioning view of authority; but otherwise friendly people and apparently loving parents. However I thought I detected a psychological impairment where they had trouble with the concept of consistency, which is mentioned in the article.

    They took consistency to mean a persistent state, rather than a measured response to similar events at different times. In other words, they appeared to struggle with a concept essential to the rule of law. My hypothesis would be that because physical punishment/abuse of children is less to do with the child’s internal state (say guilt) than the adult’s (bad day at work, anger, intoxication, projection of ‘sin’ etc) then they were unable to abstract a rational model of required behaviour consistent to underlying principles and values. The opposite of teaching ‘good’ from ‘bad’, then.

    Such adults also appeared less able to appreciate a distinction be discipline (externally applied) and self-discipline.

    I hesitate to offer such an opinion, but my brief studies in psychology suggest at least the possibility of long-lasting cognitive damage.

    An opposite and presumably much healthier state would be to involve children in political decisions (meaning giving them some say about their lives and the lives of others) at much earlier ages than currently. I welcome the lowering of age of voting in Scotland recently, but perhaps primary school pupils could be helping decide some part of school budgeting or local amenities to develop themselves: and would you beat a citizen?

    1. Alan Crocket says:

      While I’m not against moderate smacking of children, I am against patronizing them. Not even primary-school children should be palmed off with some fake notion of power, which they are only to have because they are given it by adults. Children should be treated properly as children, and not as pretend adults. They are not ours to manipulate. As long as they are treated properly, they will turn into perfectly acceptable adults all by themselves.

      1. SleepingDog says:

        Children learn all sorts of skills that they apply in adult life. Why should they not practice collective decision-making? Surely that is educating, not patronising?

        Our set text in developmental psychology was Margaret Donaldson’s Children’s Minds. Whatever has happened in the field since, she poses a question still vital today: why do children who start education often seem so fond of learning, but often become disaffected by the time they leave? Do perhaps we infantilise children who may be already well-equipped to learn?

        Studies have shown young children collectively devising games with ethically-based rules: in other words, they are already political animals.

        1. Alan Crocket says:

          Sorry, my misunderstanding. I thought you were categorizing children as citizens in order to justify not smacking them, whereas, if smacking children is wrong then it’s wrong, whether they’re miniature citizens or not.

          I share your lament over education. Children are natural learners. They’re like human sponges for learning, and they do it because that’s the nature of the organism. The problem with our social system of education, however well-intentioned, is that it’s 10% education and 90% indoctrination, which stifles rather than fosters children’s natural instinct to learn.

          I also agree that children are social and ethical animals (as are we older humans), and political in the broadest sense. Whether we smack children or not, they should be brought up in an environment which allows those aspects of human nature to flourish.

  10. Wul says:

    It’s a funny thing but some people actually get quite annoyed at the idea of NOT hitting children. My wife and I have successfully raised two children without using hitting as a disciplinary tool.

    This lack of hitting seems to annoy some of our relatives, in spite of the fact that both are happy, well balanced young adults. (Who incidentally are great with younger kids).

    I’ve been told; “You explain things too much to them”, “That’s what you get for talking to them so much” (when they stick up for their point of view in an argument).

    Sure, children’s brains are not as fully developed as adults but they know that it feels shit when someone who is supposed to love you hits you. The ways that they try to make sense of that contradiction (often by deciding it’s their fault and they are unloveable) will shape them as adults.

  11. Meaghan says:

    Thank you. Beautifully done.

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