Ian Hassall: Reality check

April 23, 2009

I’ve been away for the weekend and listening to ordinary New Zealanders who have nothing to do with the debate that is about to be replayed over s59 of the Crimes Act.

The slogans, catch-phrases and ready-made opinions you hear in the course of conversation would lead you to believe that too many New Zealanders are bullies and cowards when it comes to how they behave toward their children. It’s all, “They’ve got to learn”, “Teach the little buggers”, “Needs a good hiding” as well as the defiant, “Nobody’s going to tell me how to bring up my kids”.

Perhaps too many of us are bullies and cowards but you do hear different things said that reflect behaviour that I like to think is more the norm. You hear, “They’re only kids”, “You’ve got to love them” and so on, but these phrases come up in discussions only as a late counterpoint to the aggression. It is when the conversation turns to the publicised cases of violence to children that the aggressive expressions are no longer permissible and that is, to a considerable degree, where the support for ending the licenced aggression previously permitted by the Crimes Act has come from. Parliamentarians overwhelmingly supported the s59 change, perhaps because their closer involvement in the debate has made them see the reality more clearly.

We may be beginning to see it too. It’s interesting that efforts to make our casual, everyday expressions of violence toward children square with our horror at the media cases have been largely unsuccessful. The slogan, “We know the difference between a smack and child abuse”, has not been widely believed or taken up. People know in their hearts and fear the connection between their violent feelings and ways of speaking about children, and what they see on television and read in the papers.

Nevertheless, for supporters of the current law this connection may yet be a point of vulnerability. The promoters of the July referendum are trying to exploit it in their ads by saying that the law change has not stopped child abuse. This statement, although absurd (even the grisliest of dictators and the most charismatic of reformers don’t bring about instant social change), does have some popular resonance. It suggests meddling by the child rights supporters in something they don’t understand that is possibly unchangeable anyway.

Fortunately, that is probably not the way an increasing number of New Zealanders see it. Barnardos, Plunket, Unicef, and Save the Children deal with these matters in their day-to-day work. Their membership and the many who have joined with them are the voices of New Zealanders who have had enough of violence toward children. They support the law as it now stands.

The coming replay of the public debate needs to build on and build up rhetoric that will capture New Zealanders’ goodwill toward children and preparedness to give them a fair go. It will also be an expression of the shame and anger most New Zealanders feel at the violence suffered by so many children. But it may need more than that. The brutality of our popular discourse toward children may need to be exposed. To be named and shamed as the cowards and bullies we sound like and are when we use this language and behaviour. Most people are alarmed and sickened by observing actual violence toward children and would be surprised to hear how they sound in their casual conversation about them.

An American documentary on a television show a few years ago had this effect. It was a fly-on-the-wall record of a household in which a child was repeatedly threatened and struck in a routine, almost reflexive way. In another sequence, a child was put into a prolonged state of fear waiting for her father to come home to administer punishment and was then punished using such cold-blooded, deliberate infliction of pain as to disturb any viewer with the least compassion.

This should be shown again at a suitable time in the lead up to the referendum. It is as well that we couldn’t now make a similar documentary in this country in view of the amendment to s59 but it would be useful to make and screen a documentary that captured the language we use in relation to children.

The reality of our discourse and the behaviour of some of us toward children reflected back to New Zealanders would, I believe, help us understand better the need for the present law.

Ian Hassall is a paediatrician and children’s advocate. He was New Zealand’s first Commissioner for Children and before that Medical Director for the Plunket Society. He is Senior Research Fellow for the Institute of Public Policy at AUT, and part of the Every Child Counts campaign to place children’s interests at the centre of government. He teaches the undergraduate paper, Children and Public Policy.

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

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