Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
This was the question New Zealanders were asked in a postal ballot referendum in July and August 2009. The results were posted on 21 August.
The referendum question did not mention New Zealand’s Child Discipline Law. It was aimed at achieving a strong “no” vote so its promoters could urge politicians to overturn Parliament’s 2007 decision making it illegal to smack children for the purpose of correcting their behaviour, while giving police discretion not to prosecute cases involving “inconsequential force”.
The law as it stands is influencing attitudes and behaviours positively. It is being implemented sensitively and sensibly – an occasional smack does not lead to prosecution.
We believe that scheduled official review of the law later in 2009 is the right forum to review the law, rather than on the outcome of a poorly worded referendum. Unfortunately, the result of the referendum was negative and our task now is to ensure that Parliamentarians get a clear message that New Zealand’s child discipline law is a good law that must not be changed. Let your MP know your views.
Why was the law changed in 2007?
The old law (Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961) was a legal defence for a charge of assault. This meant that adults who were taken to court for hitting a child could claim they had an excuse because they were correcting (disciplining) the child.
It was an outdated law which had its roots in the historical period when it was legal to hit a wife or servant who disobeyed their husband or employer.
The law was changed because many New Zealanders and politicians could see that children’s lives would be a lot better if Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961 was repealed.
Why is the law change a good thing?
We all want our children to grow up to be well behaved, responsible people, able to have peaceful and happy relationships with their partners and children. Children need positive, safe and secure childhoods if they are to grow up to be successful, non-violent and happy people.
Smacking and hitting are not positive experiences for children. Smacking and hitting compromises their feelings of safety and security and can damage their relationships with their parents.
Research tells us that children who are hit can become aggressive and have other problems. Physical punishment can, in some cases, lead to child abuse. The old Section 59 sent a message to parents that smacking and hitting children was okay. This message was not in line with what modern child development knowledge tells us about how best to manage children’s behaviour.
International research shows that smacking children can lead to:
- Decreased moral internalisation (lessons are not learned)
- Reduced problem solving skills
- Reduced quality of child/ parent relationships
- Increased child aggression
- Decreased child mental health
- Increased chances of child abuse
- Increased delinquent and anti-social behaviour in childhood and adulthood,
- Increased chances of the child going on to abuse their own partner or child
- Impaired marital relationship/ partnerships in adulthood, and
- A vastly increased likelihood of child abuse.
What does the law now mean for me?
The old legal defence no longer exists – this means that if an adult is taken to court for hitting a child they cannot use ‘correction’ as an excuse.
Parents can still use physical force to keep their children, or other children, safe. The law allows parents to restrain or physically remove children, for example, to grab a child to keep them from running onto the road, or to carry them to their room, or to separate children who are hurting each other.
The law reminds police that they can decide not to prosecute where an assault is inconsequential (like a light smack). The law is to be reviewed in 2009 to see how it is working. This will include looking at how it is affecting children and families.
What has happened since the law changed?
One of the fears that people had about the law change was that it would result in parents being prosecuted for occasional inconsequential assaults (eg smacking a child lightly). No one wanted this to happen. Prosecutions for inconsequential assaults would upset families more than help them. Police monitoring of the law shows that very few complaints for inconsequential assaults on children have been made and that only cases of significant assault are being prosecuted.
More parents want to learn about positive ways to manage how their children behave. Positive discipline is based on research that tells us what children need to develop into healthy, well adjusted adults, how children learn to behave well and what parenting techniques are most effective.