Sunday, November 16, 2008

Defining harm

Child protection is one of those slightly thorny subjects for this libertarian; obviously, we do not want children to be harmed, but we also do not want the state to poke its long nose into every family's life.

One of the most critical aspects to this debate is what, exactly, constitutes harm. Whilst Baby P (Peter Connelly) was, quite obviously, being beaten and tortured physically, can we take into account other types of harm?

How, for instance, should we deal with this comment from Miss Snuffleupagus?
And then at what point does the state interfere? Sitting a child in front of the television day after day has devastating effects. A parent could never lay a finger on a child and do him just as much damage which would end in death or a prison sentence. So at what point does the state interfere?

There are some who assert that smacking is just as much child abuse as those injuries inflicted on wee Peter. They are morons, although that hasn't stopped the introduction of a no-smacking law in Scotland, the first victim of which was a Frenchman on holiday with his family. In that case, which is the most traumatic for the child: a swift smack, or the fact that she and her mother had to return home, leaving the father in jail and awaiting trial?

I think that most of us would agree that it was the latter. One assumes that said Frenchman's employers did not sack him, but laughed over the whole matter—I'm afraid that I do not know. But, if he did lose his job, that would be even more catastrophic for the family in general, yes?

So, the state should intervene only when the child is suffering sustained physical abuse causing severe physical injury. We can, of course, have a debate about the word "severe", but I would define it, loosely, as those injuries leaving a permanent mark (yes, a cigarette burn will leave a near-permanent scar, and the tell-tale signs of a broken bone last for a very long time).

But should we view the watching of lots of TV as child abuse? No, I really don't think that we can. Miss Snuffleupagus may think that it causes damage to a child, but it is very difficult to prove this. After all, some programmes are educational, some are witty, some teach moral lessons—I would cite Doctor Who in this last category, for instance. And even in cops and robbers programmes, the baddies are almost always caught.

The costs of state intervention are very high—especially to the child. Children taken into government care have the worst outcomes of any group, even when said care homes are not operating as a kind of Utopia for paedophiles (something that is made far easier by the closed-ears policy of scum like Margaret Hodge). As such, state intervention should not be entered into lightly.

Regular readers will know that your humble Devil is no great fan of television; my upbringing featured severe restrictions on the amount that I was allowed to watch and, besides, until I was about sixteen, we only had a 12" black and white set anyway. On the other hand, our house was stuffed full of interesting things to do and, most importantly, read. So, I was able to engage with something other than the TV.

Now, I might argue that children should have their TV rationed and that they should be made to read books—indeed, I could argue that to do anything else is to harm said infants. But this is just my personal prejudice and, as you all know, I am no fan of imposing personal morality onto others through legislation—in fact, I utterly oppose it.

However, I do believe in one universal bit of state interference for all children—compulsory (and free-ish) schooling. It is in the schools that we try to mitigate damage that a parent's lack of care might do to their children. We should attempt to stimulate their minds, to make them understand the value of books and the sheer joy of simply knowing things. We should teach them theories and, to engage them, then demonstrate how those theories have application in the real world. We should show them the multifarious joys and thrills that life has to offer, over and above their televisual world.

So, yes, I may be being over-optimistic and I am sure that Snuffy will disabuse me of this foolish hope. But one thing that I do know is that we will never stimulate children as long as we teach to the test; we will never make them understand the value of an education whilst we maintain that the over-riding reason for all of this learning is merely some exam; we will never give them the opportunity to broaden their minds and try new things whilst education is used as a political football.

We must remove education from the control of the state: if only this one thing were achieved, then we would be travelling in the right direction. For, from an educated and motivated population flows great things: for fuck's sake, the Victorians were, on average, far less well-educated than ourselves and look what they achieved.

What is required is hope, inspiration, aspiration. These things are incredibly difficult to impart but they are, fundamentally, the only things that will improve the lives of our children and their children and so on. And these things will never be done whilst politicians and bureaucrats rule the schools.

And that last sentence applies to everything: as long as politicians and bureaucrats rule, then innovation and aspiration are stifled. It is why any state intervention should be kept to an absolute minimum and why even suggesting that children who are allowed to watch too much television should be removed from their parents is utterly wrong.

Because next thing that you know, we will all be giving up our children to Polly Toynbee's state podding hutches, and we all know what she thinks of giving kids aspirations, don't we?
[Polly] said that to tell children that they could achieve greatness was to fill their heads with fairy tale nonsense.

Let us move away from assuming that the state is the fount of all wisdom: sic itur ad astra.


woman on a raft said...

The current legal position is that education is compulsory, school is not. That is, it has a surprisingly libertarian anchor.

Many parents exercise their right to provide a suitable education as they think fit. Some of them buy it from Eton, whilst others prefer to go DIY. The biggest group is 'Education Otherwise' - it's a grouping, not an organization.

You will not be surprised to find that this sits very ill with local authorities, who have the right to inspect what homeschoolers are doing. That's probably acceptable - homeschoolers themselves are aware that malevolent people could use the concept of homeschool to imprison children. As a general rule homeschoolers provide a personalized and excellent education, because they can do it better than any alternative provider - although they won't get paid for it and forego the state education to which they are entitled.

Neal Asher said...

I reckon it can be argued that in many cases you can cause harm by not smacking your child. You don't, for example, debate with a child the pros and cons of him running out in the road, and certainly there are many other examples. What the anti-smackers don't get it that it's not a case of continual thrashings, but the quickest and most effective way of drawing the line that must not be crossed.

pagar said...

I haven't smacked my children but I would fully uphold another parent's right to do so. The line that should be drawn regarding physical punishment is that it should not cause any lasting harm.

The raising of children is a matter of personal responsibility and will be done differently by every parent. That is part of the challenge and the reward of doing it. We should all accept that every child will have a different childhood and it is their reaction to their upbringing as they become an adult that will shape their future.

It is a fact that it is not certain that those who have had the most pampered or stimulating childhoods will become the happiest or most successful adults. And that is why the right to exercise free will is so important.

Pat said...

Be kind to Polly- its her own shattered dream of being a great columnist thats bugging her. Why did her cruel parents and teachers tell her she had something worthwhile to say?
Plus of course she really needs treatment for the co-dependancy.

Anonymous said...

"Be kind to Polly- its her own shattered dream of being a great columnist thats bugging her."

I first read that as 'great communist', but I suppose that's another of her dreams that's been shattered.

Back on topic:
"We should attempt to stimulate their minds, to make them understand the value of books and the sheer joy of simply knowing things."

Ha-ha! You think that's going to happen in government-run schools? You really think that the British government wants a country of smart people who read books and understand what's going on in the world?

If we had that, then neither Labour or Tories would be electable, which is why they much prefer the current Dumbocracy. The first thing any libertarian government should do is scrap all the state indoctrination centres.

Jack said...

You went to a good school, DK, and so did I, but they are not all like that.
The sort of school that can mitigate the damage that some parents do is not the sort of school that that kind of parent gets to use.
The state is very keen on indoctrinating children in whatever fashionable ideas it thinks will be useful to it.
Can I link to a post of mine on the subject?
It explains why it is a very bad idea, and an anti-libertarian one, to allow governments to force children to follow education programmes of any sort. The quotes are very instructive.

xelent said...

Although I agree that Baby P's torture was diabolical.. I cannot agree that smacking is harmless.. Its an old and archaic religious ritual from the past, born out of scarcity.. Hardly the world we live in today..

Anonymous said...

"We can, of course, have a debate about the word "severe", but I would define it, loosely, as those injuries leaving a permanent mark"


My siblings and I were severely abused by our father starting when we were all roughly the same age as Baby P. Following one warning from the police, he always went to great lengths to make sure that no visible evidence was left behind.

Asphyxiation to the point of unconsciousness, cigarette burns to the scalp, stabbing with needles, crushing of our genitals, shooting at our feet to make us 'dance' and immersion in freezing baths were all on the menu, so long as nobody could find any marks.

Now, decades later, all of us have varying degrees of mental illness as a result of our childhood experiences.

You don't need to leave a scar on a child to do permanent damage. Never imagine that a child must be OK because they have no cuts or bruises.

Anonymous said...

After spanking was outlawed in Sweden, the rate of child abuse severe enough to result in death WENT UP.

My father was very bad-tempered, and sometimes violent, and I tried to keep a better control of my temper with my own children because I didn't want them to live in constant fear, as I did as a child.

But many of the anti-spankers have never actually raised any children, or they have raised them with nannies or daycare centers doing the bulk of the hands on care. A child with an obnoxious habit MAY stop his naughty behavior after having to sit on the Naughty Step 50 times, but long before that his mother's live-in boyfriend du jour may have beaten him senseless out of pure frustration.

Toddler behavior can be exasperating, and toddlers are notorious for their impulsive, destructive behavior.

If the do-gooders of the world really wanted to help out, they would alter the benefit structure so that single mothers under the age of 21 would NOT have the ability to maintain a separate residence from their parents at state expense. If having a baby doesn't get you an apartment and a monthly check, you are much less likely to have one. Many of the girls having babies at 16 have VERY bad relationships with their parents, and long for an apartment of their own so that they can get away from their birth family. These girls are obviously at high risk of abusing their children.