Archive for the personal stories Category

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!

Smacking never worked for me – why I’m voting Yes

July 2, 2009

Geoffrey, who would prefer to remain anonymous, recently wrote to all MPs about his experience growing up in a violent and insecure home. His story supports the Yes Vote campaigners’ contention that smacking can ever be said to be “good parental correction”.

He received replies from Jim Anderton, Catherine Delahunty and Peter Dunn.

Dear MP

I am appalled that there are adults who have no idea of an alternative to smacking a child.

I was born in 1960 and my parents were convinced that corporal punishment was the way to discipline us.

It didn’t work.

The violence escalated until I was insecure at home and at school (corporal punishment at school). In both cases, home and school, I felt I had no recourse and my behaviour got no better as a result of being assaulted by my parents and teachers.

My relationship with my parents was distrust and disrespect right up until I left home. I admit, that once I left home my relationship with my father was better, but there has always been an emotional distance that will never be bridged even though I am 49 and he is 82.

I was married 28 years ago and I have three adult children. These three children have never been hit by their parents and are kind considerate and caring adults, the youngest is 21. In contrast to my own relationship with my parents, they are close to us and seek us out for support and advice.

My oldest son entrusts us with the care of his four month old daughter every weekend, something I couldn’t trust my parents with for my children for fear of their corporal punishment ethic.

Home is a place where a child should feel safe and have no fear where they must feel protected and not threatened – even if they have no language yet.

Smacking is a reaction by a frustrated, brutish mentality in a stressed individual who has no idea of any other approach. To sanction this behaviour, as many religions do, is to allow the brute mentality to take what they feel is the most expedient course of action. Unfortunately, corporal punishment has the opposite effect.

In the 1960s it was considered right to discipline one’s wife with violence, a crime which the police could not take action against because an old law stated a man’s home was out of bounds in domestic incidents.

There were the same cries of outrage by what seems the same people when this exemption to the law was overturned.

My guess is that we don’t want a referendum on the law which criminalises the wife beater, nor should we in the case of the same conservatives who want to be able to hit children with immunity to prosecution.

Keep our children safe!

Brian Clough: What message would a NO vote send?

June 15, 2009

I am passionate about this issue.

My grandfather was an alcoholic wife and child beater and my father beat me as a kid.  I know first hand how it feels and I find the wording of this referendum absolutely absurd.

Even if an adult was wrongly accused under the current law, at least they have the protection of the NZ Justice system via the courts – as a young boy being thrashed my only protection was the hope that my Dad would run out of anger before he managed to seriously injure me.  Sadly it’s not reasonable, good parents who kill their babies.

I shudder to think how these latent child killers in our society would interpret a NO result in the referendum.

Swedish student Maria Bjornfot talks about the NZ Child Discipline Law

May 28, 2009

maria-bjornfotMaria Bjornfot, a Social Work student from Sweden, came to spend three weeks with the Barnardos office in Waitakere as part of her study. While she was there, Annie Gordon took the opportunity to ask her about her experiences growing up in Sweden, with particular reference to Sweden’s child discipline law.

Annie: Maybe you could start by telling us briefly why you have chosen to be here in Waitakere at Barnardos at this time?

Maria: I have a great interest in children and social work so I was very happy when you accepted me at your agency. When I had the opportunity in my social work studies to go where ever I wanted in the world it was an easy choice. I have always been interested in how it looks and feels to be on the other side of the world. And the Lord of the Ring movies with all the beautiful sceneries contributed to my great interest in New Zealand.

Your situation is very interesting to me in that you come from Sweden and were born in 1979, the year of the law change regarding physical punishment of children. Can you tell us something about the ways you were disciplined when you were growing up?

When I grew up in Sweden the child discipline law had already changed and what I can remember of my childhood was more threats of physical punishment rather than being hit. But sometimes I remember my father took me by my ear or grabbed my hair. That was in the early days when the law was still new. In my later years I can’t remember any physical punishment for me or my brother. Of course we argued but it was more reasoning by my parents and if we had tantrums they ignored us or left the room.

Was this a typical situation for children at that time?

I think so, for most people it was a gradual change.

How would you say your experience differs from how children are disciplined in Sweden today?

Today in Sweden we have developed different strategies in child discipline. There is very little physical punishment that you hear about. We still are talking a lot about parenting issues though. Parents in Sweden today are struggling between full time work, their own hobbies and giving their children attention. Parents try very hard but don’t find time enough for everything. This often leads to parents feeling very bad about themselves, and to compensate they let their children do anything they want and this can also be a problem and has become a big topic of conversation.

Is there much or any opposition to the child discipline law in Sweden anymore?

No, not at all, although we still sometimes have the older people talking about the early days [before the law change] that children had more respect back then. But I think older persons are like that all over the world, afraid of the new things that happen.

Robert’s story: Childhood smacking led to attempted suicide

May 26, 2009

When I was about three years of age, I was molested. As a result, when I was smacked by my parents, the pain stimulated me sexually. As time progressed, the continued childhood discipline smacking with the pain and humiliation associated with it caused me to become sexually attractive to the pain. I began to self-harm. The resulting intense shame, secrecy and anxiety surrounding this addictive behaviour became very long-term. Later in life it led to two suicide attempts.

I now put the shame where it appropriately belongs – at the feet of those who sexually molested and smacked me in my childhood and at the feet of individuals who still believe it is OK to smack children.

I am able to inflict high levels of pain on myself as ‘sexual stimulation’ resulting from childhood conditioning caused by being smacked. This conditioning is now managed by ongoing medical support to prevent actual self-harm.

I suffer from life-long debilitating Post Traumatic Stress Disorder resulting from the treatment I received as a child.

I disclose my real life story because smacking children as was legal under [the old] Section 59 is still considered ‘harmless’. This mindset has the real potential to put many children at risk – as it did to me. My life has been irreparably damaged by the smacking culture in my childhood.

I have witnessed many other sufferers deal with the psychological impact resulting from childhood smacking during many group psychotherapy sessions over the years.

Robert [not his real name]

Lu Lu’s story: Do you remember how it felt?

May 4, 2009

It’s been decades since I was last ‘smacked’. In a family of 6 children, that entailed lining up to wait your turn to be turned over Dad’s knee. These line ups, ironically, took place in the ‘family room’. My father on the couch, us kids – tightly clustered in age (first 5 born within 6 years) but silent and separate in the line up as we watched the one ahead of us getting whacked till they cried.

This was the standard. We would have been warned ahead of time via my mother’s promise that ruined the rest of your day. ‘Wait till your father gets home’. When he did, we’d listen and wait as he was brought up to date behind closed doors. All we could hear, hovering on the other side, was the hiss of the ‘sss’ in the conversation. That was enough.

More than once the punishment was withheld to prolong the sick dread. And a few times he instructed us to prepare: to go into the laundry room / tool room and choose what we’d have him hit us with.

On the rare occasions my mother tried to mete out the smacks ahead of his arrival home I clearly recall – not what I’d done wrong – but the desperation of avoiding the punishment.

Hiding behind the china cabinet, hiding under the bed in their room (‘she’d never think to find me there…but then…when is it safe to come out?’ Hours passed.) and most memorable, once allowing her to catch me because I’d put a book down my pants.

I was less brave to rebel against my father. In fact discovered it was best to cry immediately so it was over quicker. (Interesting ‘the lessons’ I was learning…) Only once was I angry enough to ‘fight back’. What did that look like when you’re a skinny little girl and he’s six foot four? Purposely not warning him you need to go to the toilet ‘first’ and instead peeing on his knee. It did end the session after a single hearty wallop.

Only two of the many times I was hit ‘for the purpose of correction’ do I remember their ‘reason why’. One, I copped it alone on a summer’s night without the sibling line up, for forgetting about the grass seed in front of the swing set and running across it. I wasn’t reminded about the grass seed before – or after – getting turned on my father’s knee. Alone in my dark bedroom, I cried myself sick. I think that one hurt my mother as much as me; she came to comfort me and heard me utterly baffled as to what I’d done wrong, that
I only knew Dad hated me enough to hit me when I’d hadn’t even done anything.

The other occasion had happened years earlier and shamed me long past being a child. I recognized well into adulthood, as I started learning about emotional developmental stages as children grow, that while it could have been a near tragedy, what I did was due to being mischievous and experimental. Not that I was a horrible, wicked girl.

On the Sunday I’m remembering I was little more than a toddler, playing hide and seek with my brothers and my sister. Kieran, 11 months younger than me, had found what he’d have thought was a brilliant hiding place. In the clothes drier. Knowing that’s where he’d hidden, I climbed up and turned the machine on. A sound like tumbling sand shoes going around brought my mother at a run. The image of Kieran’s stark white – though conscious – face, my mother’s speechless terror, and my father’s tight lipped hatred – or was it fury? – when he picked me up, are as clear today as 40 some years ago. On that day, I accepted that I ‘deserved’ the pain dished out to me seconds later. While I wouldn’t have been able to explain it then, I felt that pain had ‘paid my debt’. I wasn’t encouraged to make amends to my frightened brother or told in terms I could understand how dangerous it could have been. In addition to ‘letting me off the hook’, the severe session of smacking my father delivered, shifted me from being perpetrator to being another victim. While understanding what had prompted it, what had been ‘an offense between equals’, became ‘big them’ against very small – and also very scared – me. The shared fear on every face had convinced me instantly what I’d done was distinctly very wrong. In retrospect, being repeatedly smacked that day, instead of told off, twisted that whole episode into something that, as I matured, continued to hurt for 3 very different reasons. The remorse over what I’d done to my brother, another reason to believe my father actively disliked – or at least certainly didn’t love – me, and the inability to make it right.

The clothes drier incident was a once off. But like all the other episodes of smacking, a missed opportunity to as the song says, ‘teach your children well’…with love. What my brothers and my sister and I remember of the ‘family room’, wasn’t abuse – they weren’t thrashings or punch ups.

It was ‘just smacking’. Probably not severe or frequent enough to warrant police attention under today’s law (if we ever ‘told’)? But enough that telling the story here has reminded me of too much pain to sign my real name to this. It seems appropriate to use my childhood nickname.

During recent years I’ve listened while the nation has hotly debated – in front of all our kids – how important it is that adults be allowed to hit them (physically vent their anger in so many cases). I’ve heard a number of people reporting “I was hit and it didn’t do me any harm”. Each time I wonder, didn’t it? I wonder where might we all be if, instead of being hit, as children we’d been supported to make amends to those we’d wronged, shown what empathy is from our earliest years, and grown up never doubting we were loved?

You can be sure I’m voting YES in the referendum, to help ensure that over time, using guidance and love take the place of smacking. If you haven’t decided to yet or you still favour smacking, can I ask, do you remember how it felt?

Lu Lu (not her real name)

Adults need limits and boundaries too

April 28, 2009

The following email arrived at The Yes Vote headquarters today.

Here is a true story. All I ask is that you do not use my name as the child concerned is currently 19 and does not need identifying in this way.

I am a “successful university educated person”.  In 1992, I was made redundant from my management position in the health sector and started attending self esteem classes at my local Women’s Centre.  One evening soon after my then Husband came home and told me to put his dirty socks in the wash house. I said no (see self esteem).

He then asked my daughter to do this she said no so he hit her so hard across the head that she fell to the ground.  I picked her up and stood there with her stunned in my arms trying to decide if it was ok that he had done this.

It was like a crossroad — I knew I either walked or told her to do what her dad said.  I am proud to say I walked. I want any parent in this situation to know that hitting a child is wrong and to not need to decide.

Because of my own extensive abuse as a child I had no idea of the limits and boundaries as to what is ok to do to a child. The no smacking law makes this clear and should be upheld.

Thank you for what you do.

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

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