One day when I was a head teacher, my deputy came into my office on the edge of tears. “Can you deal with ‘Richard’ please, because I can’t any more,” she said as the tears began to flow. I knew this was very serious because she was not only the best teacher in the school but also the most experienced. If she couldn’t manage the misbehavior of a child in the school – and she invariably did so with genuine compassion and understanding – then no-one could.
Once she had composed herself, she told me how, for some reason that day, Richard could not be reasoned with. Throughout the whole day he had continually, by turns, interrupted her, contradicted her, ignored her, tormented her and sworn at her. She had spent part of lunchtime speaking to him sympathetically and trying to get to the bottom of his issue to no avail; but now he had continued in this vain throughout the afternoon, culminating in a salvo of four-lettered abuse and humiliation that contained most of the compendium of misogynist invective. I won’t repeat the words he used, but I can guarantee that the most hardened trooper would have been shocked at the vocabulary, let alone the imagery.
I went outside and brought Richard into my office. I asked him had he used those words. He stood sulkily silent refusing even to deny them. I asked him to apologise to his teacher. His continued silence was complemented only by an expression of insolence. I had no hesitation in deciding I was going to exclude him and asked my school secretary to call his parents. At this point Richard looked not only shocked but also terrified.
In contacting his parents, I was surprised when his mother rang back to say that they would not wait for the end of the school day but insisted his father would come from work and take Richard home immediately. Richard’s father was a banker in the City holding a very senior position in one of the country’s best-known merchant banks. The family was from West Africa and deeply religious. I knew his father had taken this very personally. I told Richard his father would be coming to take him home at which point he burst into tears and began shaking.
When his father arrived Richard began to cry again and begged his father’s forgiveness. His father silenced him instantly with a single command. I apologised to him for needing to bring him from work but he dismissed that immediately, returning his apologies profusely and asking for our forgiveness. At this point, he didn’t even know what words had been used by his son, which of course, after a short explanatory preamble I had to convey.
He turned to his son and told him, quite calmly at first to get to his knees and beg forgiveness, which Richard did. His father then told him to prostrate himself on the floor and do so again. At this point, I said this was not necessary but his father insisted. When the boy seemed slow to do so, his father began beating his back and arms to the floor, shouting for his son to “Beg! Beg! Beg forgiveness!” and I could see he was crying.
I attempted to intervene but he held me back with an outstretched arm, continuing to land strikes on his son’s head, back and arms as he lay prostrate on the floor, shouting “Beg! Beg! Beg forgiveness!” but his voice breaking with emotion. Even now as I am writing this I feel moved at the memory of this man’s sense of shame and humiliation he felt that his son had brought on his family.
When I insisted that he stop beating his son or I would have no alternative but to call the police, he turned to me and shouted “You English people, you don’t understand! You think I don’t love my son? I love my son, Mr. Newland!” the tears now streaming down his face. “I love my son! That is why, when he does wrong, he must feel pain. Then he will know the difference between right and wrong. When he is good, we love and reward him. When he does wrong, we still love him but he must feel the pain that doing wrong brings with it. Where I come from, that is our custom! But you English people, you don’t understand that and you think that because I hit my son, I don’t love him! I love my son, Mr. Newland! I love my son!”
At which point he totally broke down and I must admit, I nearly did too.
It is legal for a parent to smack their child in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (under certain circumstances considered ‘reasonable punishment’) but not in Scotland.
Are there grounds for what philosophers call ‘reasonable disagreement’ in justifying the smacking of children?