Any parent who listened to the outpourings of every childcare 'expert' would quickly go stark staring mad. How to potty-train, how best to help your children learn to read, what to feed them, how much time they need with their dads, how to cope with tantrums... the list of issues which worry parents and divide experts is endless. New Labour's policy of testing children at younger and younger ages (the days when a Chris Woodhead acolyte stands in the delivery room cannot be far away) is fuelling a growing wave of parental paranoia. Faced with all this, the best policy is usually to trust the instincts of the real expert: you.
But there are some debates with more profound implications than whether your child is 'dry' through the night by the age of two, or potty-trained by three, or counting by five. Most explosive is the debate over the physical punishment of children, ignited again yesterday when a rally by Gary Ezzo, an American evangelical Christian who advocates physical punishment of children as 'rightly applying God's principles in parenting', provoked righteous anger from British child-rearing experts.
It is difficult to know where to start with somebody like Ezzo. He believes that after the age of two-and-a-half children should clear up their own 'accidents', that excessive cuddling spoils children, and that physical punishment is necessary. Between the age of 18 months and three years, Ezzo advocates up to five 'swats' a day for crimes such as putting fingers in food. (How his philosophy works in the US, where adults seem rarely to use anything else to eat food, is a mystery.) After the age of three, parents need apply no numerical restrictions.
The theological justification for his views is unclear. Even in the Old Testament, the scriptures do not appear to command, 'Thou shalt hit thy children'. If God means anything, God means love. And violence against the most vulnerable people in society, young children, does not, cannot, equate to love. Ezzo is no Christian. He is mad, bad and, if people take him seriously, he is dangerous.
Ezzo and others who support physical punishment of children always talk about 'smacking'. Words are used to soften blows. Research which asked children how they would define a smack found that the majority described it as a 'hard hit'. Calling hitting 'smacking' absolves adults of some responsibility. But hitting it is.
Polls routinely find that the majority of parents think it is acceptable to smack their children. Ezzo bandied such a poll at his meeting yesterday. But a different result might emerge if the words 'hit' or 'beat' were used instead. No one talks about husbands 'smacking' their wives any more. They are called wife-beaters, and rightly so. Yet arguments about the sanctity and privacy of the home are used to protect the right of parents to hit, in just the same way they were used to protect to rights of husbands to hit and rape their wives.
Children should enjoy the protection of the law just as adults do. Assaulting children should be illegal, just as assaulting adults is illegal. Half a dozen European countries have banned physical punishment of children. The result has not been prisons overflowing with parents who gave their child a mild tap: police officers and prosecution services have bigger fish to fry. Most of us have received a blow from, or delivered a slap to, another adult, which in theory could have led to convictions for assault. Since Sweden passed a law banning child punishment, not a single prosecution has resulted. Not because all punishment stopped, but because the usually trivial nature of the crime will rarely justify prosecution. But there been a dramatic shift in attitudes. Support for the right to hit dropped to 11 per cent, compared to 70 per cent in the UK.
Our attitude towards hitting children reflects our attitude to violence generally. Children who are hit at home are more likely to hit their peers in the playground, because physical force has been held up to them as one way to establish dominance. They are more likely to hit their own children in the future. There is no such thing as the 'loving smack'. A blow to a child is a sign of the parent's weakness, not the child's culpability. It is time to show Ezzo and his ilk the door. It is time to give children the right to freedom from violence. It is time all we adults grew up.