Equally protected? Parents' role in defending children's rights

Among the wide range of roles parents fulfil on a day-to-day basis, the role of ‘rights defender’ is surely one of the most valuable. We may not see ourselves in such terms, but as parents, we are our children’s fiercest advocates. 

From an early age, children demonstrate an innate sense of fairness. They feel it when they have been treated badly or are ‘wronged’. They know when another child is treated more favourably than them. Quite rightly they often struggle to resolve their difficulties by themselves. And that’s where we, as parents, come in. We fight our child’s corner, we negotiate and we compromise to restore that sense of fairness.

Standing up for them shows them that they are valued and teaches them how important it is to challenge unfairness and do what is right.

You may have heard media reports over the last few weeks about a proposed ‘smacking ban’. But that’s not what is being talked about here. In reality, John Finnie MSP, is attempting to change the law to ensure that children have the same - or equal - protection from assault as adults.

In Scotland, parents who are charged with assaulting their child can claim that the assault was justified as long as they were administering it as a physical punishment and they did not use an implement, hit the child around the head or shake them.

Changing this law will not only provide equal protection to children, but will also start a wider discussion around the use of physical punishment in Scotland. Internationally, we lag far behind the rest of Europe. The UK is one of only four EU countries yet to commit to legal reform on physical punishment; the UK has also been subject to repeated criticism by human rights bodies such as the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

We know that parental attitudes towards physical punishment are changing, with between 80 and 90% of parents in a Growing Up in Scotland survey suggesting that they found physical punishment either ‘not very’ or ‘not at all useful’.

Research commissioned by our office in 2015 in partnership with Children 1st, NSPCC Scotland and Barnardo’s Scotland confirms that view. It found that not only did physical punishment have the potential to cause harm to children, it was also ineffective as a parenting technique. Rather than improving a child’s behaviour, it made it worse. Physical punishment also carried a clear risk of ‘low level’ physical punishment escalating into more serious abuse.

If parents themselves are recognising that physical punishment doesn’t work, then surely we should work together to find non-violent alternatives that do.

Not all children have parents who can stand up for them, so the office of the Children and Young People’s Commissioner has a particular focus on children and young people who might otherwise not have a voice. 

The way forward is clear – if we are serious about being our children’s ‘rights defenders’, then we need to look at where children currently enjoy lesser rights than their adult counterparts, and we need to be their fiercest advocates. If we want to teach them about fairness, offering them equal protection from violence is a very good place to start.

The Commissioner’s role is to promote and protect the rights of all children and young people across Scotland. His team helps children and young people better understand their rights, makes sure that their voices are listened to and scrutinises new legislation and policy to make sure it reflects their needs. 

John Finnie’s Equal Protection consultation document is available online here

The consultation closes on August 4th.