July 2, 2009
By Anne B. Smith
Many people, including myself, have been saying that the Referendum question about smacking, is ambiguous and misleading. So does that mean that we should ignore it and chuck it in the waste paper basket, or should we respond? The referendum question is: “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” A lot of people – both ordinary parents and the majority of experts – don’t believe that smacking is part of good parental correction, but we should not be distracted by the phrase “as part of good parental correction”. The Referendum is really about whether the 2007 child discipline law is a good and just law, and whether it is in the best interests of children.
In my view we need to stand up and be counted by voting “Yes”. If we vote “Yes” we show that we understand the law as one small part of our country’s efforts to show that we care about our children and that they are human beings who should be loved and nurtured rather than hit. This law is not about criminalizing parents, because it is very clear that the police are not prosecuting occasional light smacking. It is about sending a message that parents should not have an excuse in law, if they hurt their children badly enough in the name of discipline, to come to the attention of authorities.
It’s important to put the issue in an international context. We are part of a global movement towards recognising that physical punishment is violence and a violation of rights. Some years ago we stopped physically punishing prisoners and juvenile offenders, and stopped spouses being allowed to physically punish their partners, and teachers from physically punishing children in schools and early childhood centres. We have now joined the 24 countries around the world, which have prohibited the physical punishment of children in all settings, including the home. Progress towards eliminating physical punishment around the globe has been exponential in the last decade. In 1999 corporal punishment was illegal in only eight states but today it is illegal in twenty four states – Austria, Bulgaria, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Latvia, Moldova, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Ukraine, Uruguay and Venezuela. High Courts in two further states, Italy and Nepal, have ruled that corporal punishment in childrearing is unlawful. Many other countries, such as the Czech Republic, Ireland, Lithuania and Serbia, are committed to full prohibition and are in the process of developing new policies and laws to bring this about. Laws do not always change behaviour, but recent research in Germany by Professor Kai Bussman showed that countries which had prohibited corporal punishment had fewer families using physical punishment and more families rearing their children without it. Especially if this law change is accompanied by education and support for other parenting methods, it can make a difference.
The Child Discipline law is just and good because it protects children from the public health risk attached to the use of physical punishment. No, I am not saying that an occasional light smack is going to harm children forever, but regular use of physical punishment is a risk to children’s health. Research shows that physical punishment has been associated with children’s increased aggression; poorer academic achievement; poorer quality parent-child relationships; more depression and anxiety; and decreased self control. No-one has been able to show that physical punishment has any long-term positive effects on children’s behaviour or development. Other more positive methods of parental discipline have been shown to be more effective, contribute to the well being of children and do not pose risks.
But by far the most important reason that the present Child Discipline law should be supported, is that physical punishment is an assault on children’s dignity. It is disrespectful of their physical integrity, and they find it shameful and humiliating. If we want to treat children without discrimination, as people with human rights, we must support this law.
- Anne Smith is a professor in the education faculty of Otago University.