Deborah Morris-Travers comments on the Sunday show’s portrayal of her childhood and the smacking issue

August 12, 2009

Some months ago Sunday reporter Simon Mercep interviewed Jimmy Mason, the Christchurch father convicted for punching his son in the face. Following the show Sunday received a lot of correspondence and decided to interview more people about their experiences of physical punishment.

The Sunday programme for 9 August carried interviews with my family, and also with Simon Barnett.

In the telling of my story, as a child growing up in the 1970s, I related the strict and, at times, harsh physical punishment we received as a child. My parents talked about an era in which there was little information or support available for parents and they did what they thought was right at the time.

In my interview with Sunday, I noted that my older sister, in particular, had experienced a lot of physical punishment and that this had undermined her self-esteem, her confidence and sense of place in the family.

On one particular occasion I rang 111 and spoke to the operator about needing the Police to help my sister. The beating that was taking place ended so I told the operator I no longer needed help. I tried hanging up but discovered the operator was still there asking if everything was okay!

As a 9 year old this wasn’t something I could tell my parents about. It wasn’t until recently that we discussed it. My mother remembers the incident of physical punishment that prompted my call to the Police even though she hadn’t know that I had taken that action.

It is my belief that the anger my sister experienced contributed to her alienation from the family in her early teens, leading her to put herself in risky situations and then leave home at age 15. She later became a parent at 17 and had another child at 20. She went on to use physical punishment with her children.

Throughout her life it was clear that she carried with her anxiety and depression. Central to the story my family sought to tell was the important message that while the circumstances leading to her death were complex, being hit did not help build the resilience, confidence or resourcefulness she would need in adulthood. It undermined her sense of well-being.

As I have reflected on her childhood and teen years I have been struck by the similarity of her experience with the international evidence about the harms of physical punishment, including the potential for:

  • Aggression and delinquency
  • Poor mental health and poor self esteem
  • Learning difficulties
  • Relationship difficulties
  • Criminal and antisocial behaviour
  • Risk of victimisation of more serious abuse

When I have spoken with my parents about all of this they have been clear that as time went on they did start learning new ways to discipline us. This is why, as the middle child, I received less physical punishment than my sister – who was 5 years older than me.

For me, physical punishment put a great deal of pressure on my relationship with my parents. It made me angry and resentful. I didn’t trust them or respect them. Nevertheless, I was lucky to be a lot more resilient than my sister.

In recent years, partly due to the work I’m doing, we’ve had the opportunity to talk these things through as a family. My parents have related the role of the evangelical Church in promoting the physical punishment of children, they have apologised and we’ve moved on.

My parents have spoken with me about having learned that they could actually reason with us as children. The great thing is that now, as Grandparents, they understand the power of positive parenting and the numerous, non-violent, strategies they can use with children in their care.

And, as a parent now myself I am adamant that hitting children is unnecessary and unacceptable. I am convinced that families can change and we can break the cycle!

On this, it was interesting watching the show on Sunday night, hearing Simon Barnett’s assertion that he didn’t smack in anger, but one of his daughters saying her Dad was angry. It is common for parents to downplay their level of anger when they resort to physical punishment.

It was also worth noting that Simon admitted that hitting his youngest daughter didn’t work. This is what many New Zealand parents are discovering and it is hopefully what Simon’s older daughters will realise when they become parents themselves.

Of course, during the course of filming the Sunday show we had lengthy interviews with Simon Mercep about all of the issues involved, about the positive parenting strategies we employ with my 4 year old daughter, about the law and children’s right to have the same legal protection as all other citizens, and about the need for a YES vote in the referendum. I was disappointed that there wasn’t more discussion on the show about the techniques we use instead of hitting.

The nature of TV shows such as this is that time constraints mean the editing is heavy and viewers get just a snippet of information – and of course it’s the most sensational bits!

We have received dozens of supportive emails in recent days, many of which have referred to the lasting anxiety and depression caused by childhood punishment experiences.

Thanks to everyone for their support. Reflecting on what was supposedly an ‘average 1970s childhood’ wasn’t all that easy. I’m pleased to be parenting in a new era of awareness about how to do things differently!

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

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