To Smack or Not to Smack | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 21.11.2005
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To Smack or Not to Smack

Germany's new coalition has already set out plans to build on the current policy of a child’s right to a non-violent education. By way of contrast, a new study shows smacking to be widely accepted in Germany.


What to do with an uncontrollable screaming child?

In a survey, commissioned by the Berliner Zeitung newspaper, 36 percent of those asked said they believe that smacking children is justifiable, with a further 28 percent deeming it acceptable to raise a hand in exceptional circumstances. Only one third expressed outright rejection of the practice as an educational tool.

This latest round of controversy, in what is a long-running and ever-evolving issue in many European countries, was sparked by Berlin’s Chief Public Prosecutor, Hansjürgen Karge, who recently went down on record as saying: "I am not seeking to introduce corporal punishment, but I won’t have anyone stop me from giving an occasional smack."

Mutter mit weinendem Kleinkind

What is the best way to discipline a child?

His comment has drawn a sense of general incredulity from both sides of the fence, with child protection agencies damning the practice as humiliating for the child involved and slamming the man who publicly condoned it as misguided, and well-worn parents claiming that an occasional smack is a far cry from violence, and can be incredibly helpful.

"I think a smack on the bottom is okay, but it’s important that it is spontaneous and that the children know what it is about and know that they did something very wrong. It’s like with medicine, a few drops can be very effective, but too much is poison," said mother of two, Johanna Weske.

Violence against children "inadmissible"

But the fact is, that since the introduction in 2000 of the Outlawing Violence in Education Act, smacking a child is out of bounds. The law declares corporal punishment, psychological injury and other demeaning forms of educating children as "inadmissible." Yet that said, enforcement of the legislation is a sketchy business, with charges rarely pressed in anything but extreme cases. And even then, they are often waived if the family concerned agrees to counseling or other supportive measures.

So if the law is not actively used as a tool to prevent smacking, just how serious is the problem?


Happy days with the parents

A comprehensive report published three years after the introduction of the act, indicates that 60 percent of Germans think it acceptable to raise a hand to their children every now and then. And while that figure seems high, Barbara Ammer, Managing Director of the Alliance for Children Against Violence, says there are definite signs of a shift away from physically abusive parenting.

"Society is changing, but the process is slow. Since the law came into force, awareness about a non-violent upbringing has increased and the idea of non-violent education is becoming more important in society," Ammer said.

Idealism versus realism

But ideals are not always representative of reality and Lotte Knoller of the Child Protection Centre in Berlin says a problem she frequently encounters among the parents she counsels is an grave uncertainty about just how to set about child-rearing. "When it comes to education, Germany is in a gray zone somewhere between a laissez-faire and a rigid attitude. Parents don’t know how to earn the respect of their children."


Parenting can be a case of fumbling in the dark

Ammer too, says that while communicative, almost discursive parenting techniques are fine in theory, they don’t always provide children with the restrictions they need. The consequence is unruly behavior with which modern parents are often ill-equipped to deal.

"Interestingly, although the birth rate is in decline, sales of education self-helps books is on the increase," Ammer said. "Changing values in our society are making people insecure. Authority has been replaced by communication, and parents are more reluctant to establish boundaries and make rules."

Putting children first

Society may be changing, but the need among willful young children to know where they stand, is not. And that is where the act for non-violent education comes back into play. Whatever its restrictions in practical terms, it serves the purpose of raising an awareness of the difference between acceptable and non-acceptable child-rearing, and perhaps more importantly of letting parents know that there is help at hand when the going gets too tough.

As much as anything, it operates like a campaign to make Germany, often viewed to be child-unfriendly, realize the value of investing time, effort and warmth into nurturing its younger generation. Ammer says the ultimate aim is to "encourage people to put children at the center of our society."

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