Smacking Children as Good Parental Correction

In front of me sits my voting form for the Citizens Initiated Referendum started by Larry Baldock and Gordon Copeland. I received it two days ago and have spent the last two days mulling over the respective pros and cons of ticking either box. I am, in short, trying to understand (without being a parent) the arguments on both sides.

On my Facebook wall sits a comment from a friend relating to my recent tweet on this matter. It says:

“So either you disagree with good parenting or you’re in favour of violence against children, what will you choose?”

I’d really like to encourage people with opinions on this to post short-medium comments below with their thoughts, opinions, evidence, and/or personal reflections. I’m particularly interested in hearing from friends with children, younger and older, on the way they discipline their children now, and whether they would like the right to smack their children as part of good parental correction without fearing criminal charges. As a non-parent, this is a difficult issue for me to understand because my ideas about discipline/correction are based on empirical evidence, qualitative research and my own life. I am sure they will change when I have children.

We’re a lucky bunch in NZ because when 10% or more of enrolled electors sign a petition asking for a referendum on an issue or piece of legislation (the question may only present two possible answers), we get one. As this is a citizens initiated referendum, it is non-binding on the Government but should a large proportion of the population vote “no” (as in “No, a smack as part of good parental correction should not be a criminal offence”) then only a very silly Government would ignore it completely.

It’s the closest we’re going to get to direct democracy and for once you, rather than the people you elect, will get the chance to have your say on an issue/piece of legislation. Direct democracy brings its own problems and is not at all efficient, or effective for that matter, most of the time, but in this case I think it is justified. In short – please take the time to vote on this matter because we don’t get this chance very often and it will determine the Government’s next move.

I know the question isn’t worded at all well and personally I don’t think it should have been left as it is by the Clerk of the House but it was, so to my mind it makes sense to get on with the process and make a well-thought-out decision on this.

Here’s how the Act read before the change:

Every parent of a child and…every person in the place of the parent of a child is justified in using force by way of correction towards the child, if the force used is reasonable in the circumstances.”

Sue Bradford, who proposed the initial repeal of S.59 said:

It is up to a jury to decide if the force used was reasonable in the circumstances. This was interpreted by a jury in Napier in recent years to mean that it was reasonable for a father to hit his eight year old son eight times with a piece of wood 30cm by 2 cm — leaving linear bruising visible for days. Also in recent years a jury in Hamilton considered it reasonable for a father to hit his 12 year old daughter with a piece of hosepipe, leaving a raised 15cm-long lump with red edges on the girl’s back.

These cases form the legal background against which police decide whether to prosecute or not when they come across similar instances of abuse. Thus beating children with pieces of wood and hosepipes is “reasonable” under current law. The United Nations reports that we are the only country to have such harmful legislation.”

I wanted to find out a little more about child discipline measures and conveniently the American Academy of Pediatrics has published an interesting study on this. Follow the link to see the full report, including methods. According to them:

“Among young children aged 19 to 35 months, frequent parental use of discipline strategies ranged from 26% (spanking) to 65% (taking away toy or treat), 67% (yelling), 70% (using time out), and 90% (providing explanations). In multivariate analyses, child age predicts reports of more frequent spanking and yelling, and child developmental risk is associated with increased reports of yelling. Parent frustration predicts frequent use of every discipline practice, including a greater inclination to use aversive practices. Lower parental emotional well-being is associated with reports of frequent yelling and spanking. Black ethnicity and maternal age predict more frequent spanking, and Spanish-speaking parents reported less frequent use of time out and taking away a toy.

Conclusion. Child age and developmental risk and parents’ ethnicity, emotions, and mental health are closely associated with discipline practices in the first 3 years of life. These factors are important for pediatricians to recognize in providing anticipatory guidance about discipline.

In 2005, in Child Development (November/December 2005, Volume 76, Number 6, Pages 1234-1246), Lansford et al showed that “countries with the lowest use of physical discipline showed the strongest association between mothers’ use and children’s behavior problems, but in all countries [in the study: China, India, Italy, Kenya, the Philippines, and Thailand] higher use of physical discipline was associated with more aggression and anxiety.”

In a quick Google Scholar search I discovered that the State University of New York at Buffalo has published a paper outlining something that I’ve been thinking for a while now [health warning on this – haven’t read the whole paper and don’t know the journal]. They showed, to summarise, that young people who were smacked as children were much more willing to use smacking as “good parental correction” with their own future children, than young people who were not smacked. To me this smacks of (I realise how awful that pun is but it was necessary at some point) a generational thing. If most of those enrolled electors particularly interested in this issue were not smacked as children, would this be an issue?

The Children’s Legal Centre in the UK has this to say about physical correction:

Whether a ‘smack’ amounts to reasonable punishment will depend on the circumstances of each case taking into consideration factors like the age of the child and the nature of the smack. However, physical punishment will be considered “unreasonable” if it leaves a mark on the child or if the child is hit with an implement such as a cane or a belt.”

So thus far we’ve got concerns over making it more difficult for child abuse cases to be prosecuted and issues of higher aggression and anxiety. What are the proposer’s arguments?

There’s an interesting interview between Salient (my old uni magazine) and Bob McCoskrie, the National Director of Family First, which seems to highlight the opposing points well. I’ve posted quite a few of the important questions below but I’d recommend going to read the whole thing:

JW [Salient]: Assault: What is the difference between me correcting one of my staff members, my partner or even you? Why is there a difference? Why can I, as a human being, hurt another human being? What makes that okay?

BM: There is a huge difference, and that is in the nature of the relationship. The difference with a child is that there is a parent/child relationship. In the same way I can’t tell you to eat your peas or when to go to bed. Or the same way I can’t put you into time out when I’m sick of your bad attitude. That is because it is an adult/adult relationship. A parent child relationship is very different. A parent is responsible for the actions, behaviour and development of that child and sometimes there is an element of force that is necessary—whether that is removing them to time out, or yanking away that plate of food because of withdrawal of privileges. That is what the original Section 59 took into account and what we’re failing to recognise at the moment.”

JW: What exactly is your problem with the legislation as it stands?

BM: The benchmark is so low that it criminalising parents who use a light smack. We’ve put examples of these cases to the Prime Minister. It has simply gone too far and that is why we support an amendment, which doesn’t go back to the original Section 59. We believe that it is a middle ground and a win-win situation in that it more clearly defines what is reasonable. It takes away the use of implements to avoid any doubt. It says there can be no evidence of bruising or welts—that’s an immediate indicator of whether it has gone too far and also says that it can’t be degrading or humiliating. If that father had repeatedly thrown his boy to the ground because he didn’t like the fact he wasn’t going on the rugby field, that would be degrading an humiliating. The problem is that is not what happened.

JW: Can you identify a single case in the last two years where the amended section 59 has been applied injudiciously?

BM: Yes. We have six cases in front of the Prime Minister at the moment that involve a simple open-handed slap on the leg, a couple on the bottom, a smack on the arm, pulling the blankets off a kid who won’t get up in the morning. Throwing a pair of jeans at a child to get them to hurry up in the morning.

We believe the law is being applied wrongly. One of the interesting issues about all this is that people have questioned the referendum question and said, “What is good parental correction?”

If you look at the new Section 59 you’ll actually see that one of the categories for when you can use reasonable force is “good care and parenting”. Okay. Now, they say, how do you define “good parental correction”, and yet within the law that they’ve passed they say you can use reasonable force when it is part of good care and parenting. Well, they need to define that. There is a red herring about the referendum question because they don’t like the answer it is coming to. But at the same time they’re willing to use the same type of wording within the law and say it is working.

JW: Do you think children, at some level, if you believe they’ll understand what you’re saying to them as we’re all humans, that if you can explain to them that what they’re doing is wrong and there is a consequence to it, and you don’t have to reinforce that with pain?

BM: That’s why, as the kids get older you’re probably not going to be smacking. As the research shows, the meta analysis is that the most effective time you will probably have to use it, and it’s at its most effective, is between two and six. After that kids can reason. You can explain to a child. But I tell you what, when you see that kid doing an upside down ant impersonation on the floor of the super market that is not a time to sit down and have a reasoned debate. Kids just don’t want to reason. If you’ve dealt with a tired child at about 5:30 at night, and most parents will know what I’m talking about when I talk about the ‘witching hour’—around tea time, late in the day, kids are scratchy. Sometimes reasoning just doesn’t work. This is the reality of parenting.

JW: You didn’t think that when the teacher applied the strap or when your parents applied the wooden spoon they were doing wrong by you?

BM: No. No. That’s just it. I think some people would say I got it and it was highly traumatic. My argument would be it wasn’t the technique that was the problem; it was the way it was applied. I’ve been a social worker in South Auckland for 12 years and I spent far more time dealing with kids who had been told by their parents they were absolute nothings and they were going to amount to nothing and just were useless. The harm the spoken word can do is just as damaging. It goes back to not necessarily the technique, but the way it is used. I think parents are rotten when they leave their kids in the car on time out when they’re up in the casino gambling away all the money. 

So back to me, I’m weighing up the alternatives and thinking this one through. Anyone got anything else they’d like to add to this lengthy post?

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