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I Smack and I’m Proud

Thursday, September 21, 2006 by

Are the chattering classes no longer a bunch of spankers? Or are they astute enough to recognise an ITV1 producer’s man-trap when they see one?

Although ostensibly a documentary on smacking, ITV1′s I Smack and I’m Proud was another in a series of programmes (Trisha, Jeremy Kyle, Honey We’re Killing the Kids) designed to allow the viewer to feel superior and sneer at lower-class life.

The show opened with a series of parents reciting the usual clich├ęs used to defend corporal punishment: “I think, ‘It hurt me more than it hurt him’”; “It didn’t do me any harm.”; “Spare the rod and you spoil the child.”; and, “You have to be a brave parent to admit you smack your child.”

The focus was on a series of exclusively non-bourgeois families: Angela Davies and her three children Marcella, Aaron and Lorenzo; Gary and Tracy Wall (the Wayne and Waynetta Slob of parenting) and their six children; Martyn and Amanda Ayers and their two kids; Denise Williams and her two daughters; and Jenny and Mark Flanders (not their real surname), who believed their kids should fear being spanked as much as the Lord.

Interspersed between the clans were brief comments from more of the producers’ lower-class parental sample, the usual talking head snippets (eg Dr Miriam Stoppard) and the obligatory comments from celebs. Both Ulrika Jonsson and Fiona Phillips were adamant they didn’t smack their kids, which is no doubt true (nanny probably does it for them).

The camera’s presence had no inhibiting effects on the featured parents, which allowed them to demonstrate all the inconsistencies and distorted logic that informed their disciplinarian practices, starting with the Davies family.

“I say my piece: you don’t listen, you get whacked.”

A graduate from The Sopranos‘ school of parenting, Angela was clear to the objectives of her reign of terror: “I love them, that’s why I discipline them. I don’t want them to take drugs or get pregnant; I don’t want them to hurt another child.”

Davies stated that, “I rule this house, I’m in control” but she wasn’t – either of her temper or the children. In the 12 days the family was filmed, she struck her kids 20 times on camera, although the edit made it feel as if martial law had been declared in the Davies household as she repeatedly hit her kids with a spatula as they failed to do their homework.

“When Tracy smacks ‘em they know it.”

Although the Walls had six kids to hit, the focus was on problem-child Aaron, a seven-year old with a mouth like a docker. He had a four-year behavioural history of tantrums and swearing, and you didn’t have to be a social learning theorist to see where it came from. While administering a smacking, Tracey and Gary would argue and swear at each other, demonstrating the parenting classes they’d attended hadn’t worked.

Gary and Tracey had “tried everything” with Aaron, including the “old-fashioned” method of putting curry powder in his mouth. To those who thought soap was the old-fashioned way, they’d tried that as well. But neither of these two methods had worked, unlike pepper, which really did the job (where had they been for these parenting classes? Guantanamo Bay?)

Maybe it wasn’t a surprise Aaron called his dad a “prick”, “bastard” and “fuckin’ idiot” if this was the treatment he was receiving. The battle of wills between father and son led to Aaron running away at one point, not that the Walls noticed (they’d probably have had another couple of kids before realising he’d gone).

“We woz bringing him up wrong.”

Martyn and Amanda Ayers had a more clearly delineated problem with their son Mitchell, who suffered a severe case of dethroning with the birth of his brother Spencer. The Ayers had planned originally for Mitchell to be their only child and had consequently “spoilt and mollycoddled” him. The birth of Spencer and the loss of attention had clearly affected the boy’s behaviour, and six months after the birth Martyn decided on a zero tolerance policy: “One day he wound me up and wound me up and then I hit him. He cried for 10 – 15 minutes and was shocked and then was perfect for 15 minutes after. I thought: ‘Blimey, is this what it takes?’”

Martyn had extended this hardline approach to the evening meal, bawling at Mitchell, “Keep your fucking legs forward,” whenever he turned round to look at him. The dad complained at not being able to concentrate when at home and wanting a period of quiet reflection after work, which went some way to explaining the real reason his son was being hit so often. Maybe if he cooled down first before interacting with his family, Mitchell would be hit less often.

The most uncomfortable moment was seeing Martyn ask his son: “Do you hate me for smacking you?” Mitchell said no, absolving Martyn of absolutely everything.

The final family was Denise Williams and her two daughters Page and Charley (“They’re a pain in the arse”). Mum would smack for such heinous crimes as not being able to open the door because her daughters’ room was messy. In Denise’s history were features that would later be shown to be similar to Angela’s: a father from the army who practiced a strict regime of punishment (“His belt would be undone if I wasn’t in by nine”), who one day punched his daughter in the mouth after she contravened his oppressive rules.

Was it effective? Well Denise didn’t sleep with anyone until she was 20, although later stole money from a service station in Pontypool and threatened the cashier (an old woman) with a hammer, for which she received six months imprisonment. She’s also served time for fraud (three months) and another few weeks for assault. So a successful disciplinarian upbringing there.

What was evident in the closing sequences where Harley Street psychologist Dr Lucy Atcheson met the parents was an almost complete inability for the adults to make links between their own childhood experiences and subsequent behaviour as adults. Angela grew up in Singapore where her father was in the British Army. She said he was a “strict disciplinarian” who “didn’t know how to love” and “treated me like one of his soldiers”.

Rather than recognising she’d become a clone of him and respond to the psychologist’s suggestion she be more demonstrative in her loving, Angela retorted that she [the psychologist] was, “going on like a broken tape-recorder”, although was at least able to refrain from hitting Dr Atcheson with a spatula.

When the doctor met with Martyn and Amanda there was slightly more insight (or guilt) and a contrast in results. On viewing the footage for the first time Martyn visibly paled, especially the scene where Mitchell was told to, “keep your fuckin’ legs forward”. As Lucy pointed out, Mitchell was simply curious at to what his dad was doing when turning round at the table.

Partly as a consequence of seeing his own behaviour, Martyn had decided to stop smacking his eldest son, although it felt somewhat contrived to close the hour’s grim viewing with this tacked-on “happy ending”.

The vast majority of the parents featured were unaware of the change in the law in 2005 which states that if the inflicted punishment leads to more than an actual passing mark, the parent could face up to five years imprisonment. As was pointed out by the health professionals, small children are often unable to see the connection between the smack and the misdemeanour, and become increasingly desensitised to the physical punishment. They also tend to be focus more on the received punishment rather than what they’re told they’ve done wrong.

But whether you agree with corporal punishment or not, a supposed documentary should be able to provide articulate responses to both sides of the argument, not allowing the Slobs to square off against the Stoppards.

With the cessation of corporal punishment in state and private schools, and in the family in other European countries, it’s probably only a matter of time before Parliament brings to an end the kind of techniques employed by the appropriately named Andria Bowes-Adolfess, who uses smacking to show “wrong from right”.

Little Hitlers, one and all.

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