June 10, 2009
In early 2006, in the epilogue of the book, Unreasonable Force: New Zealand’s journey towards banning physical punishment of children, I said:
Despite the years of debate about the place of physical punishment in child rearing there are still some people who fear or even resent the law change. However, I believe that it will not be long before the vast majority of people in our country will feel confident that Parliament did children a great service in 2007.
I still believe this strongly. I am confident that despite the upcoming referendum, and whatever its non-binding outcome may be, children in this country are benefiting from a move away from the use of physical discipline.
Over time this will result in many more children having safe and positive childhoods and fewer adults regarding the use of violence as a right.
Individuals and organisations who oppose the law change hope that the referendum outcome will lead to the reintroduction of a statutory defence so that parents can be confident they are within the law when they smack, whack or hit their children. These people believe that a smack is part of good parental correction. It’s not of course.
Any reversal of the law would be saying to New Zealanders that it is a good thing to smack your child. Some parents will believe that if one smack does not work let’s do it harder and more often. And what will the children be learning when they are smacked?
I reckon the messages they will take on board are things like: “The person I trust and love wants to hurt me” and “When you are very angry with someone you should hit them”.
There are other messages that a reversal of the 2007 law would symbolise as well. For example, it would tell us that children are not entitled to the same protection from assaults that adults enjoy, and that while society has come a long way from the days when we condoned wife beating as standard practice in the home, a return to state sanctioned child beating would be fine.
I believe the new law is working well. Parents are not being prosecuted for minor assaults.
The section 59 law change was never about punishing parents. It was about influencing attitudes positively and I believe this is happening. Many parents, grandparents and others now have a healthy interest in learning about alternatives to physical discipline.
The upcoming referendum will no doubt be accompanied by familiar arguments.
For example, some of our opponents say that the law change has not led to a change in behaviour and that it has not led to a reduction in child abuse.
I have no idea what these claims are based on. The section 59 law change was never going to immediately address serious child battering or murder – how could it?. Laws in themselves to not stop people committing crimes – individual and societal attitudes do.
All we could ever hope to do with the section 59 amendment was to level the playing field by removing the ‘reasonable force’ defence for physical punishment, and work towards a gradual change in attitudes throughout society, aiming for a time when people will no longer see beating or smacking children as either desirable or acceptable.
Beliefs about the use of physical punishment are one factor in child abuse. Of course there are others – like poverty, poor housing, drug and alcohol abuse, physical and mental illness and intergenerational family violence, which can all be contributory factors.
But violence and abuse can happen in the wealthiest of families, and attitudes about hitting children are a key part of the equation wherever you look. It is the underpinning acceptance of violence against children that we have to keep changing, both through the law change and with more and improved parent information and support.
I welcome the opportunity the referendum gives us to remind ourselves about the responsibilities of nurturing children, of raising them in violence free homes, and of finding ways to guide their behaviour that enhance self esteem and the development of self responsibility.
I encourage anyone reading this to vote Yes for Children, to vote Yes to keep the law change so many of us have worked for over many years.