January 10, 2014 7:02 pm

Beyond the naughty step

‘We turned, naturally, to the original great parenting manuals: von Clausewitz, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu’
Lucas Varela's illustration of Robert Shrimsley's son doing karate©Lucas Varela

The boy is now a brown belt at karate. He could break my arm with a blow of his nose. I mention this less out of paternal pride than because it means I face living with a child who will soon be tougher than me.

That day was always coming, of course. Indeed, the reason for enrolling both the spawn in karate classes was the recognition that their genetic inheritance condemned them to a combustible temperament combined with a lack of stature.

I still enjoy a small height advantage over the boy and, sadly, a considerable weight advantage but my days of having the upper hand in unarmed combat are clearly numbered. The girl is not far behind, so we could soon be prisoners of a superior physical force, terrorising us for lifts and iTunes credits. Fortunately, we have had years to prepare, thanks to one of our earliest parenting choices – the decision not to slap our children.

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Robert Shrimsley

As a result, we have had to find other means of enforcing our will and it is these years of training in domestic, non-violent strategy which will pay off once they are our physical superiors.

Because, whatever modern parents tell you, there comes a point when the naughty step just doesn’t cut it any more and you need something more than natural authority to enforce your will. When that day comes, Supernanny won’t help.

We turned, naturally, to the original great parenting manuals: von Clausewitz, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. Who doubts that when the great Florentine said it was better to be feared than loved, he was talking about refusing lifts to social engagements? No one has ever topped von Clausewitz when it comes to getting young kids ready for school. And was it not the wise Sun Tzu, in his child-psychology classic The Art of War, who noted that subduing the enemy without fighting is the highest skill? Let me tell you, that’s a man who never lost control of the TV remote.

Learning from these masters of strategy we set simple rules and followed clear tactics: we did not let the spawn divide us and we never invaded Russia in winter. It was not all military strategy. Hobbes’ Leviathan, surely the last word on raising teenagers, was indispensable in helping us shape the chores rota. We did face some pushback once the spawn found Paine’s The Rights of Man but after that we were careful to keep them away from other fashionable modern parenting manuals such as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

This isn’t to say we met all our parenting goals – but in the face of nagging, tantrums and endless repeats of Barney, we did not waver. The path of non-violence was our choice.

I mention all this because the past few days have been marked by rumblings, yet again, from those who do not believe that this choice is best left to parents. Maggie Atkinson, the children’s commissioner for England – whatever that means – called for a total ban on smacking, lamenting a “loophole” that still allowed parents to slap their kids. By loophole, what she meant was that smacking is not banned. A similar loophole still allows tea-drinking and jogging.

Happily, the government was quick to decide that it was not ready to criminalise thousands of parents. Branding every mum or dad who momentarily finds themselves at the end of their tether a child abuser is not just bad politics but bad government. But regrettably, one suspects that the tide of history is ultimately flowing in Atkinson’s direction.

Some will welcome this but one worries for the younger parents, or those without good parental role models. Choosing not to smack your kids is often the harder, more time-consuming option. You must also be alive to the risk of tipping over into emotional abuse, where censure stops and cruelty starts. Yet advocates of a ban seem to believe that those who cannot be trusted to know when a slap is too hard will know when their alternative methods are similarly, if less visibly, damaging.

In any case, one day the smacking ban will come and everyone will be shunning Supernanny for Sun Tzu. We’ll be through it by then, so if anyone wants our old parenting manuals . . . 

robert.shrimsley@ft.com; Twitter: @robertshrimsley

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