Don’t raise your voice to a Scottish child

You heard it here first. Scotland’s smacking ban was just the start. The dominant conglomeration of hyper-gentle, no-punishment, counselling-obsessed childhood “experts” are now set on their next step. Keep your eye open for the early signs.  Articles are starting to appear elsewhere in the English-speaking world, claiming that “verbal abuse” is as damaging as sexual abuse. A shouting ban will soon be proposed.  

These are the claims: 

  1. Children are not morally responsible for their actions.
  2. All bad behaviour stems from ignorance or mistreatment.
  3. Warm words and encouragement build up children.
  4. Children are fragile; so criticism, reprimand or anger harm children.   

Therefore, they propound, any act or statement in response to bad behaviour that might make a child unhappy or upset is unfair and damaging. But they are mainly wrong. 


The threat on the horizon

Like adults, children sometimes do things that they know are wrong. Motivations vary from greed to experimentation to vindictiveness. Children do not stop taking things that don’t belong to them the moment they realise that stealing is wrong. They do not stop hitting each other as soon as they understand that it hurts. If only it were that simple, bringing up good children would be a breeze. But it’s not.

Just like adults, children can weigh up the options and then choose what they know is wrong. I know this because I used to be a child (I think this is what is now called “lived experience”). 

Of course, a child’s (or adult’s) emotional state can influence their behaviour.  Trauma and anxiety can be powerful factors, diminishing personal responsibility. Our response can be tempered by such understanding. However, regardless of the mitigating circumstances, we exhort children to refrain from bad behaviour. Even if we believe that a child bears no responsibility for their actions in a particular extreme circumstance, there is no justification for generalising from such cases.  

Now for the grain of truth among the confusion. Of course, children need warmth, praise and affirmation.  Of course, this can salve emotional scars.  Of course, children deprived of love won’t flourish.  

It’s the next step where they really go off the rails. One way of putting it is that the childhood “experts” believe that rebuke and annoyance are antithetical to love. Worse, they view children as so fragile that hard words do irreparable damage. The artificially soft persona of the stereotypical person-centred counsellor is prescribed for every human interaction. Any deviation into sharpness or anger is tantamount to child abuse. 

Headlines will pick out the ban on “shouting” for its shock value, but dig deeper and the campaign is much wider.  “Verbal abuse” can, according to the “experts”, include:

  • criticising, 
  • blaming, 
  • demeaning, 
  • disrespecting, 
  • scolding, 
  • frightening 
  • or threatening. 

Smacking ban proponents deliberately conflated physical abuse with a smack.  The same people are now becoming shouting-ban proponents who deliberately conflate abusive bullying with telling children off or threatening punishment.  


Man the battlements! 

It has been said that the role of social conservatives is to give reasons for things that don’t have reasons. That’s the case here. A parenting and child-rearing culture has been taken for granted for centuries, because it comes naturally and it works, so there hasn’t been a need to explicitly justify it. There now is a need. So, here it is—read on! 

Children need teaching, training and disciplining if they are to internalise the virtues necessary to flourish. As well as honouring virtues, they must learn to reject vices. Proper responses to selfish, greedy, hurtful or defiant behaviour include disapproval, irritation and even anger. The person who is never angered by what is wrong has not risen above such base emotions, but has artificially detached himself from the stirrings of his own conscience. Children need to learn that some actions will provoke anger, and that this anger is not always a fault, but can be inevitable and righteous. 

Once, when teaching, I was with a small group of boys aged about 10 to 14. I overheard an older boy ask a younger one where he lived. Upon hearing which area of Edinburgh the boy and his family resided in, he replied, “That’s where all of the prostitutes are. Your mum must be a real munter.” In other words, he was saying, “Your mum is so ugly that your dad has chosen to live near prostitutes so that he can use them in preference to your mother.” I was furious and he knew it. He knew it because I reacted angrily and told him, in no uncertain terms, that his comment was reprehensible.   

The fragility-gentleness utopians would respond that two wrongs don’t make a right. But being angered by such an egregious comment is not wrong. The boy learned that such a statement angered me and, by implication, would likely anger other people as well.  He would, hopefully, think twice before repeating. I explained why it was a terrible thing to say, and he knew from my demeanour that this wasn’t some minor faux pas, but was an outrage.   

A mealy-mouthed explanation of the error of his ways would leave this boy ignorant of the natural human reaction to such a comment. He might receive a soft-voiced reproof in school, but in other contexts, he will get fired, ostracised or punched for similar outbursts. I taught him that people will flare up in response. The ideal is for him to learn this lesson from someone who will not punch him, or be personally insulting or abusive, but who will still display a natural human reaction.  



Even leaving aside the communication of moral outrage, a stronger tone of voice serves a function in communication. From parents to police officers, the next means to persuade the non-compliant that you mean business can be to speak more firmly. It’s human nature. The utopians wish that their winsome whispers would always carry the day—but they don’t. Conveying a degree of authority through tone and manner can be decisive at a critical moment.     

Criticism of flaws, blame for actions, a sharp tone and threats of consequences are all perfectly acceptable aspects of parenting and teaching; but the project to demonise them all is well underway, under the definition of “verbal abuse”. The post-moral, therapeutic, children’s rights and fragility philosophy has been dominant for years already. So, how is it going? Listening to its advocates, you would imagine schools full of timid children who dared not express themselves and shook with terror whenever a teacher approached. Can you find a single teacher to endorse that view? I doubt it.  

The problem is already the precise opposite. Scottish children are more likely nowadays to be defiant and unrestrained, making life miserable for other pupils and for teachers. Boundaryless living is hardly the recipe for personal wellbeing, either. A pupil will not feel at peace after another day of hedonistic selfishness and cruelty. However, it is symptomatic of the dogma that the proponents of dulcet tones persevere despite all evidence and can see no way out of a problem beyond a stronger dose of their existing prescription.    

In the prevailing ethos, parents feel inhibited when dealing with their own children, refraining from the firmness that would otherwise be natural. They internalise the irritation and exasperation that children inevitably engender from time to time, instead of expressing it. This can leave children pushing the boundaries incessantly and parents eventually exploding when they can no longer hold in their frustration. Children do need building up, but sometimes they need taking down a peg or two as well.   

This might be particularly acute for fathers. Roughly speaking, fathers are more likely to take a firm line, talk straight, admonish and discipline children. Mothers are more likely to take a relational or restorative approach. These complementary styles usually combine to form an effective team. That’s my view, anyway. The Scottish education/social work/charity/political establishment takes a different view: the typical feminine approach is always best, and characteristically masculine approaches are worse than ineffective and unenlightened; they are considered dangerous—worthy of criminalisation.        

There are certain things that shouldn’t be said to children. I don’t buy the view that a sentence uttered can blight someone for decades to come; but a sustained lack of love, hostility or aggression will take its toll. The distinction between criticising and insulting is important. The balance between warmth and firmness is no exact science, but any loving parent will instinctively seek a generous balance. A degree of fear of authority figures is healthy, but we can easily see when it is veering into an unhealthy domination or terror. 

That’s the heart of the utopians’ error. They would never come out and say, “Because something can be done badly or to excess, it should be banned”, but that is basically their pitch. They seek to use the extreme to demonise the perfectly reasonable.   

It will be claimed that research shows “verbal abuse” is the root of all kinds of evils. On closer inspection, the studies will suffer from:

  • conflation,
  • confounding and gratuitous subjectivity, 
  • genetic neglect,
  • and statistical feebleness. 

However, they won’t be subject to closer inspection in the media or Parliament. 


The outlook 

In 2018, the Scottish Government toyed with a redefinition of child abuse. The proposal would have criminalised the sort of behaviours that have been discussed here. It has seemingly fallen off the Government’s agenda. Perhaps they didn’t have the heart for another Named Person Scheme-style controversy over state intervention in family life. The juggernaut won’t be stopped that easily, though. 

Pressure is building. All of the usual suspects will keep pushing, with the aid of a sympathetic media. The Scottish Parliament will offer no resistance, beyond the opposition Conservatives temporarily querying some of the finer points. Labour? They will be as keen on the push as the SNP. 

They won’t rest until a father is in court for shouting at his son who had just hit his mother.   

In the Scottish Family Party, we’ll fight it for the sake of teachers, parents, family harmony and children’s development. The way that almost all adults interact with children ain’t broke, so we don’t need the Scottish Government to fix it. 

Remember, you heard it here first.   


Main article image: Eddie Kopp | Unsplash licence