Life & Culture

Interview: Aric Sigman

How can we save our children? Smack them


Dr Aric Sigman has found himself making the headlines recently. Controversy has been raging over one particular assertion in his new book, The Spoilt Generation, which has been causing Guardian readers to get more than a little hot under the collar.

The vehemence with which he has been attacked has taken Sigman aback, especially given the fact that his views would not have made the front page of a synagogue magazine 40 years ago. Yet now his assertion that parents should be left to decide whether to smack their children or not is incendiary.

Sigman freely admits to smacking his own children (he has four between the ages of six and 19), but he does make a distinction. “I’m only talking about a slap on the wrist — a ‘potch’ to use the Yiddish term. It’s a mild smack on the backside hand delivered out of love and concern, and perhaps Jewish anxiety, over a child’s well-being. There is a huge difference between a parent who punches his or her child across the face or hits them with a belt and one who slaps them on the hand when he sees them reaching for a hot burner.”

Sigman, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, talks about when his then 33-month-old son was knocked down and badly concussed after running into the road and being hit by a car. He assumed that the trauma of being knocked over would dissuade his son from repeating the exercise. He was wrong. “No sooner had he recovered than he saw something over the road that interested him and ran towards it. I told him to stop, I ran after him, grabbed him and gave him a whack on his backside accompanied by a good shaking and topped with a generous burst of menacing shouting.” His child has not run into the road since. However, Sigman adds that his actions could have led to his arrest. Twenty-three countries, 18 of which are in Europe, would consider his method of disciplining his son a criminal offence.

Sigman, who was born and grew up in the United States but has lived in Britain since 1973, is at pains to point out that he is not necessarily an advocate of smacking. What he is concerned about is that mothers and fathers recover the art of instinctive parenting — that they set boundaries for their children and enforce consequences, whether this be a slap on the wrist or a frozen salmon down the trousers (another, albeit bizarre, form of admonishment occasionally administered by Sigman when his children misbehave). “A few years ago I wrote a book about the biological effects of too much TV on young brains. When parents contacted me, I discovered they were scared of telling their two- and three-year-olds they couldn’t have a TV in their rooms. I realised that this was not about television per se but rather a problem with showing authority.”

Trying to be friends with your children is a way of copping out of being a parent

Sigman adds that, in his opinion, we have become confused about our role as parents. “I hear celebrities and even members of the royal family saying that their six-year-old daughter is their best friend. It is an impossibility to be best friends with your children. Those two things are mutually exclusive. Trying to be friends with your children is a way of copping out of being a parent.” He feels that mothers and fathers have different but complementary roles. He thinks that the mother should be at home during the early years of a child’s life and that fathers should not attempt to be what he calls “assistant mothers”. Parental roles are not interchangeable for him.

Sigman, who, as a part-time session musician dressed casually in jeans and T-shirt certainly does not come across as the Victorian father some have accused him of being. He loves the fact that he prepares nearly all of his family’s meals at home in Brighton and fetches his children from school. As far as he concerned, he is espousing, not “traditional values“ with all the political baggage they involve, but rather “timeless principles”.

He also feels that Guardian readers should be supporting him. After all, he blames capitalism for falling standards of parenting.

“For the sake of the economy, it is useful for people to be persuaded that there is no difference between putting your children in daycare or the mother looking after them at home. If you also persuade society that males and females are interchangeable , you then have a situation where either the mother or the father or both can go to work, which boosts the economy, cuts the price of labour, and suits our ‘me me me me’ lifestyle. Government doesn’t want to pay benefits.

“I’m afraid that when you have children, self-sacrifice reigns. People assume that they should retain a similar standard of living when they have two young children. It would never cross their mind that they could trade in standard of living for time. People do not want to hear that.”

He also feels that fatherlessness is having a huge effect on the emotional health of our children. And he does not feel that it is feckless men who are to blame. “After three years of separation, almost a third of fathers never see their children. The established idea is that men abandon their children, but men are easily cut out of the equation. Mothers can move away and make it difficult for fathers to see their children.”

If Britain is getting parenting badly wrong, Sigman can point to cultures where the family is still valued — places like Iran and North Korea. “Yes, the axis of evil,” he laughs. “I’m sure your readers will be horrified, but I think the Iranians are remarkably similar to Jewish people. They don’t drink, food is central to their lives and mothers rule the domestic sphere. In North Korea I found that the children were happier and behaved better than ours are.”

He also feels that elements of Jewish culture are good for parenting. “Family is central in Jewish culture. So is food. Intuitively, Jews think that children who sit around the dinner table with their parents fare better than those who don’t. Well, they are right.”

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