DennisSometimes I fancifully imagine the state education system waited for me to finally leave school before they outlawed corporal punishment on their premises. The facts bear me out. I exited education in 1985; caning and other forms of physical teacher-on-pupil chastisement were abolished in 1986. Okay, so I might be exaggerating my small pond reputation as a trouble-maker, but it does seem retrospectively coincidental. I actually managed to evade the cane, which now seems quite an achievement; but I was cunning. However, that didn’t prevent me once being led into a darkened room by a teacher, where I was ordered to bend over, and a term’s worth of pent-up frustration of being outwitted by a smart-arse shit was unleashed in the form of a hard plimsoll on my backside. That was the ritualised form of punishment; there were more spontaneous acts of violence on the part of the staff during lessons, of course – objects being hurled across the classroom, tables being shoved into the midriff, heavyweight registers whacked on the back of the head – all perfectly legit and an accepted response by an exasperated or simply sadistic teacher to a pupil he regarded as disruptive or merely annoying.

In the public schools, regular beatings were regarded as character-building as sport, especially in the days when pupils were being groomed to govern the colonies; so entrenched was the practice that prefects could administer a thrashing of a younger pupil on behalf of a teacher, viewed as a perk of the prefect system. Parodied and satirised as a key aspect of public schooling in literature, films and on television (anyone remember Jimmy Edwards in ‘Whacko!’?) it was no wonder it took longer for the law to be extended beyond state schools – 1998 for England and Wales, 2000 for Scotland, and 2003 for Northern Ireland.

The birch was the most commonplace implement for punishment in schools up until the advent of the cane in the late nineteenth century, eventually being outlawed throughout British educational establishments in 1948, though controversially retained on the Isle of Man until the mid-70s. The cane became rarer as a form of school discipline in the 70s, usually administered only by the headmaster and gradually superseded by the slipper. By this time, buttocks bearing the brunt of the impact were no longer bare, probably to the disappointment of those teachers who paid good money for their own bottoms to receive a far harsher treatment from a lady of their choice. A greater awareness of the physical as well as psychological effects on a developing body and mind played their part in the eventual ending of corporal punishment in schools, and the subversive sexual element of the exercise was probably a factor too.

I haven’t even mentioned the unlicensed activities of playground bullies, but we’re talking adult-on-child here. Away from school, parental punishment was less regulated and more impromptu, if just as predictable. Strangely enough, being aware of what the consequences could be rarely stopped an act guaranteed to provoke them; a deterrent? Not really; but it did have some effect, looking back. It certainly made any affection towards my father difficult, knowing what he was capable of; and I have always found it hard to forgive and forget, quite frankly. The memories of running away from a six-foot ogre in anticipation of a red handprint on my legs loom large in my childhood recollections.

It is true that successive generations of children experienced a less violent form of physical retribution from a parent as chastisement fashions changed; my parents came from the era when a father removing his belt and whipping his child was a common occurrence, giving rise to the ‘it never did me any harm’ cliché as justification for dishing out their own punishments, ones in which the hand was regarded as a more humane alternative to the belt. The backside was generally the target area, with the head and ears reserved for special occasions. Mostly, the casual nature of these smacks reflected the minor misdemeanours I committed; my mother would routinely smack me in public and nobody would have considered her guilty of child abuse. Dennis the Menace always ended his weekly adventure bent over his father’s or teacher’s knee with a slipper or cane poised to descend upon his bum, after all. Did I really deserve it, though? I was no Dennis as a child, certainly not in comparison to some of the kids I went to school with; but that was the language of child-rearing as spoken during my formative years. I wasn’t to know then that within twenty or thirty years the language would be outlawed forever. I wasn’t to know then that I belonged to the last generation of children who would receive it both at home and at school.

One could say there’s a fine line between ‘acceptable’ chastisement of a child by a parent and actual abuse, though the majority of parents know where the line lays. Any government interference that robs them of authority over their own children’s punishment stinks of the state adopting an in loco parentis approach. The last major poll surveying parents in 2012 found that 63% disapproved of a smacking ban.

I suppose there’s an argument to be made that being exposed to such rough justice from an adult at an early age toughens you up and eradicates any brattish tendencies, just as parents and teachers telling you you’re a waste of space and will never amount to anything could galvanise you into proving them wrong. We now have a generation of young adults who bypassed all of that, whose idea of punishment at home was the naughty step and at school, suspension. They’re the ones we saw throwing wobblers in supermarkets back in the noughties as their hapless parents had to stand and watch. They’ve also been repeatedly told how special they are, something that won’t necessarily prepare them for the gradual realisation they’re not. Imagine when they get to university and how they’ll cope with something that contradicts their opinion of themselves and the world around them. Oh, we’re already there.

© The Editor

13 thoughts on “THE BACK OF MY HAND

  1. At home, in the ‘backward’ 1950s and 60s, my parents played it pretty well – in early years, my childish misdemeanours were punished with a spontaneous hand-slap on the legs or the bum, but never a ritualised, choreographed affair, just a timely, slighty-stinging slap, delivered as an immediate sentence. It worked – I soon learned the boundaries and transgressed them less often.
    As I became older, perhaps from 7 upwards, they would reason with me about my behaviour, whilst still retaining the threat of the slap in reserve – like ‘Trident’, rarely if ever needed but useful to have there just in case.
    My senior school was one where only the Headmaster administered corporal punishment and only for the more serious acts – it was regarded as a failure by the other masters if they had to invoke the Head’s cane, as that meant they had not managed the situation well lower down the food-chain. Prefects, a generally snotty and self-satisfied bunch of brown-nosing swots (no, I wasn’t a Prefect), were only empowered to issue ‘lines’ or detention, but nothing physical.
    I too avoided the cane through that period, although I once came very close for ‘illicit political activity’ but managed to negotiate a cease-fire with the Head before his weapon was unsheathed.
    Used correctly and sparingly, I do not see any issue with reasonable chastisement, but therein lies the problem, your judgement of ‘correctly, sparingly and reasonable’ may be very different from mine. I was never harmed by my early ‘slaps’ and probably benefited from the threat of the ‘nuclear option’ hanging over me throughout my developing years, but its application relies on personal parental judgement and, from recent observations, my confidence in that talent now being widespread is limited.

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    1. Yeah, it’s a tricky one. I always respected the teachers who didn’t resort to physical punishment and pointed out the error of my ways rather than simply whipping out the slipper. And it is indeed true that parental punishment was on-the-spot and spontaneous as opposed to ritualised. Did it do me more good than if I’d been raised in an environment where there was just the naughty step? Impossible to guess, I suppose.


  2. To agree with Mudplugger feels like an offence that in itself might merit corporal punishment

    I shall content my self with the smug superiority imbibed from knowing that the tawse was of far greater significance than a mere cane

    That CP often ‘worked’ in some fashion was no better demonstrated to me in that some little nyaff that I went school with got an ‘A’ grade in higher maths, something I signally failed to do, for no other reason that he had been unfortunate(?) enough to fall into the stream taught by the most fearsome teacher that ever existed – although some of my relatives who also fell into his ambit swore that he was by far the best teacher that they had ever met!

    Of course, one can temper this slightly when taking account of the fact that in the last two years of primary school, failure in the daily spelling test resulted in a trip up to the front for a belting on the hand, duly delivered by one of the nicest sexagenarians that ever lived. Some kids were belted by her every day. Nowadays we’d call them dyslexics….


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    1. Ooh! I was reading about the tawse when researching this post. Doesn’t sound much different from the cat from the description I’d read. Think I’d rather have the plimsoll on the butt, to be honest!


  3. “The birch …. eventually being outlawed throughout British educational establishments in 1948”:
    No, what happened in 1948 was the abolition of *judicial* corporal punishment – nothing to do with schools. There was no explicit abolition of the birch in schools, it just fell into disuse (though not until the mid-1960s in the special case of Eton). Whether a court would have upheld it as “reasonable” under common law was never put to the test, as far as can be ascertained.


  4. The occasional slap from a parent, provided it’s justly-deserved and well-timed, doesn’t seem too wrong to me. On the other hand, for an adult to assault a child raises other questions. Is brute force a good example to give to the young?


  5. At my school there was a distinct two tier hierarchy to corporal punishment. Firstly there was the, entirely misnamed, “Slipper” which was in actuality, a very heavy and thick souled training shoe! This could be dispensed at the whim of any teacher who had abjectly failed to maintain discipline without recourse to physical violence. Secondly, of course, there was the “Cane!” The use of this “ultimate deterrent” which so patently failed to deter, hence the need for its continuous deployment week, after week, after week…. was almost ritualistic in its procedures and was considered to be something of a “Rite of Passage” among the boys! 😫

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