'A helping hand?' : young people's perceptions of adults' use of physical force in disciplinary relationships with children
Physical discipline of children is currently a subject of major debate within and beyond the UK. Mainly in relation to children's disciplinary relationships with teachers and parents, this topic is repeatedly the subject of high profile parliamentary and media debates, campaigns, legal cases and international political pressure. However, the perceptions of those in the social position to receive such physical discipline have rarely been included in the legal and political debates or in research studies. When young people's views have been sought it has been on issues and in terms determined by adults. This thesis specifically aims to address this gap in the research literature and to inform the debates on physical discipline by highlighting the issues of particular importance to young people. This is in line with recent legal, political and scientific shifts towards valuing the voices of children on all matters affecting them. Adopting a broadly interpretivist methodological approach, and drawing on the new 'sociology of childhood' paradigm, the study is grounded in the young people's own perceptions. It elicits their views at an abstract level and examines perceptions thematically in relation to their underlying frameworks of reference. The fieldwork involved focused interviews and focus groups with 227 participants aged 11-12 and 14-16 years from schools in central Scotland. In addition, the adult debates and interviews with 25 carers are analysed to further illuminate distinctive features of the young people's perceptions. Themes emanating from the young participants are organised into three dominant areas: purposes and immediate effectiveness of acts of physical force; concerns and contingencies surrounding acts of physical force; and relationships, rights and power. Young participants perceived the use of physical force as legitimate for certain disciplinary purposes. These are grouped in four main categories: to communicate with the child; to teach appropriate behaviour for the future; to restrain or remove the child; and to enforce overall adult control in specific situations. The term 'punishment' was associated by young participants solely with retribution, which they rejected as an illegitimate purpose for physical force. The widely perceived immediate effectiveness of physical discipline was seen as dependent upon the influence of certain contextual conditions, such as the child's personality and peer influence. Perceived effectiveness did not imply support for physical discipline. There was a strong theme of unease with its use but a lack of confidence in finding any alternatives. Contextual concerns about the application and short term negative effects of physical discipline are analysed as containing six dominant themes: whether the acts fulfilled legitimate purposes; avoidance of pain or injury; the extent of adult control of actions; the degree of embarrassment and humiliation; the precise bodily target of force; and the appropriate age of the child. The study found that these reservations led to participants introducing relatively fixed contingencies that physical discipline would have to meet in order for it to be considered acceptable. It is noted that the terms child abuse and violence were reserved by young participants for acts with specific characteristics which mark them as particularly unacceptable. Child abuse referred to acts without a legitimate purpose which focused on the needs of the adult rather than the child. Violence referred to acts in which the adult does not observe an appropriate limit to the force. Concerns about the longer term implications of physical discipline are identified as focused on the risks of: these fixed contingencies being broken by the adult; lasting physical or psychological damage; damage to the disciplinary relationship; and the child copying the behaviour inappropriately. Conversely, it is found that there was a subsidiary theme of concern that children not receiving physical discipline would grow up spoilt and wild with negative implications for wider society. The rights of adults to physically discipline children were assessed by young participants according to perceptions about the particular relationship and the constituents' social roles. Parental rights were presented by participants as exceptional because of a parents responsibility for a child's moral development and peculiar intimacy with a child. Parental delegation of rights to other adults, including teachers, was rejected by young participants because these relationships lack this intimacy. However, the study reveals a theme of resilient frustration at the 'unfairness' of one-sided rights surrounding all physical discipline. Moreover, it is found that young participants analysed acts of physical discipline as manifestations of a power imbalance in the adult-child relationship. Although young participants noted that adults can take advantage of their position, they also presented children as active agents who find strategies to challenge this power imbalance. A substantial body of opinion considered that the risks outweighed the rights of adults and necessitated a legal ban on all physical discipline, although participants were concerned with practical problems which might be caused by a gap between legal and attitudinal change in society. Overall, the study identifies two dominant discourses underlying young participants' perceptions of physical discipline: developmentalism, which portrays childhood as a natural progression towards competency; and rights, which stresses the fixed entitlements and responsibilities for active agents and social actors irrespective of competency. These two discourses are accommodated in the young participants' model of a dynamic power balance between active social actors in the disciplinary relationship. The perceptions of young people presented in this study form a competent and sophisticated interpretation and critique of adults' use of physical discipline. Moreover, the study identifies substantial differences between the young participants' perceptions and the views expressed by the carers interviewed and actors in the wider legal, political and research debates. These differences highlight peculiar features in young people's perceptions. For example, young participants stressed the purpose of physical discipline for moral development, whereas both carers and the adult debates have focused on social development and obedience to adult authority. The contingencies which young participants placed on disciplinary acts were less flexible than carers' across different situations. Young participants' rejection of parental rights to delegate disciplinary rights was not shared by carers or featured in the adult debates. Carers did not share young participants' concerns with the imbalance of rights and power in disciplinary relationships with physical force. The study concludes by underlining the implications for policy, practice and research on physical discipline that are presented by the distinct perspectives of young people.