The child discipline law six months after the referendum

February 24, 2010

Six months have passed since the August 2009 postal referendum on “a smack”. The 2007 amendment to the Crimes Act 1961 that essentially bans the use of force for correction remains intact despite the referendum and extensive lobbying of politicians and the public by “pro-smacking” activists. Since the referendum two reviews have indicated that the law is being implemented sensibly:

Leading politicians have not wavered on their decision to not to reintroduce a statutory defence

However, it is possible that the public are confused about what the law actually means, because it is confusing, because of the emphasis there has been on protecting “good” parents from prosecution and a mixed message in the media about the acceptability of minor physical discipline .

The 2007 law means that if an adult hits a child hard enough to end up being prosecuted he or she will no longer have a statutory defence to call on. Technically any assault, however light, is against the law (just as a minor assault on an adult is) but the reviews indicate that minor assaults are not being prosecuted. This is not because mild physical punishment is good for children but rather because prosecution is not a constructive option in such cases. It would be unfortunate if the two reviews held since the law change and associated political reassurances are regarded as support for smacking or seen to imply that smacking is a necessary part of child discipline.

It is also clear from the second review that claims made by some parents that they are investigated inappropriately are one sided and short on detail.

New Zealand would be moving more rapidly towards becoming a place where everyone believed that it is not acceptable to smack and hit children if its leaders across many spheres were clear and consistent in their support for positive, non violent discipline. This is not the same as advocating that all parents who transgress the law are punished.

We don’t really know what proportion of the public wants to smack and hit children. The outcome of the referendum based on a confusing question is not an indicator of relevant public attitudes. The limited research we have available seems to indicate that attitudes are trending in the right direction but that there is still some way to go before a majority of the population can move on from a belief that hitting and smacking children is ok, even necessary.

ACT MP John Boscawen, is convinced that children cannot be guided to behave well without being smacked and that use of implements might be appropriate when keeping children safe. Where does he get his information about child rearing from? Does it come from his own experience as a child, has he observed other people parenting or is he simply taking a punt at what he thinks will be a popular cause? His background is in the accounting and finance world which will not have exposed him to modern child development theory or experience with managing children. He makes no reference to credible research in justifying his claim that physical punishment is a necessary part of child discipline and a parent’s right.

And what of children’s rights? It is illegal to hit wives, prisoners and service men and women in New Zealand, fundamentally because such assaults are regarded as an infringement of their human rights (regardless of whether or not hitting might make them behave better). The same is true for children.

Mr Boscawen’s bill has been drawn from the ballot but it has not had its first reading in Parliament because Mr Boscawen has delayed this, as he is entitled to do. It appears likely that he will continue to delay the first hearing because he does not have support from any party in Parliament other than ACT. Mr Boscawen has held a series of public meetings around the country to support his bill and it is likely that his supporters will hold further meetings. Whose interests will the meetings serve? Certainly not the interests of children.

International research continues to indicate that children that are hit have poorer outcomes than those who are never, or only occasionally, exposed to physical punishment. (See also other research on this site).

Recently pro-smackers around the world made much of a US study that claimed to have found that young children spanked by their parents may perform better at school later on and grow up to be happier. Marjorie Gunnoe, psychology professor at Michigan’s Calvin College is the author of this unpublished research and has used it to caution against governments changing laws to ban use of physical discipline. The research been rejected for publication by at last two respected journals and there has been considerable criticism of its methodology.

2010 will be good year for children if:

  • political leaders stay strong in their resolve not revisit the 2007 law
  • politicians and other leaders encourage greater use of positive non-physical discipline by supporting the law and not excusing physical discipline.
  • increased funding is made available for parent support and education with a particular emphasis on supporting local communities to lead their own changes in the way children are regarded and treated
  • the law is presented in a positive and reassuring manner as being a good law for children and families and one that is being implemented sensibly
  • the media continue to loose interest in the so-called “anti-smacking debate”.
  • the pro-smacking activists let the issue go and move on.

Beth Wood

Plunket Barnardos Save the Children Unicef Jigsaw Ririki Parents CentrePaediatric Society Womens Refuge Epoch

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