Posts Tagged religious attitudes to child discipline

Herald: Most mainstream churches back the YES Vote

August 12, 2009

The NZ Herald reports today that most mainstream churches back a YES vote.

Some quotes:

“The law isn’t perfect, but [the Catholic Church is] reasonably satisfied with the compromise.”

The heads of the Anglican and Methodist churches say the current law, which bans the use of force against children for “correction”, is working well and should not be changed.

Baptist national leader Rodney Macann said the referendum was an opportunity for churches to declare their belief in “zero tolerance for violence”.

Rev Tom Innes: Decriminalising violence does not sit with Christian theology

August 4, 2009

On a Hiding to Nothing

Today (3 August) I received two pieces of mail in the post. The first was Build Magazine. The second was my voting paper for the so-called “so-called ‘anti-smacking’ law”. Seeing 89 glossy pages of engineering and building wisdom from the Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) alongside my voting paper got me thinking about the differences and similarities between engineering buildings and engineering societies. Now, the the building of societies is something we all share in and the big question is towards what are we building? I suspect that much of the opposition to the section 59 amendment (2007) to the Crimes Act 1961 comes from the notion that such legislative changes are in fact “Social Engineering” (or “PC”).

The “anti PC” argument goes that just changing the words does not change anything as we all know what we mean. Call a spade a spade. The counter argument is that there is a relationship between reality and the words we use to describe that reality. By changing the words we reshape the reality. Funny that the people who say the words don’t matter get so steamed up when the words are changed! This suggests to me that the words do matter. Anyone who has read Genesis might suspect that the spoken word is indeed reality-shaping. In Chapter 1 it is the word of God that brings the world into being. In Chapter 2 the naming of the animals and the spoken response of the man to the creation of the woman is fundamental to the relationship between humans with each other and the world around them.

So, what does it mean to rename “smacking” as “hitting” or to call either “criminal”? Quite a lot. Underneath the various arguments lies a profound two-fold question: What sort of world do we want to create and how do we want to relate to those with whom we share this world? Those of us who benefit from the way things are will probably opt for “smacking”, while the victims of violence or those who have to pick up the pieces will tend to go for “hitting”. Children will be pretty clear what they think is happening – if they are permitted to have an opinion.

We all know the referendum question is badly worded but for my money the decriminalisation of violence towards children does not sit with a theology that sees each person as unique and special and as the bearer of the image of God. I am going to vote “Yes” because I am only too well aware of the anger and violence that I am capable of and because I want to be a better person. To vote “Yes” is to say that violence towards children is not acceptable. It means setting ourselves the challenge of living up to our own word.

The Build Magazine cover is minimalist. It features the words “Product Substitution” and below that, “Corrosion”. The article on product substitution warns of the dangers of using inferior and fake products in place of the ones specified. Violence is never an adequate substitute for love. Jesus demonstrates the genuine article. The corrosion article reminds us that – for buildings as for cars – “rust never sleeps”. Corrosion is what we do to children when we resort to force, till one day we look down and find that we ourselves have slowly and silently been eaten away from the inside. A “Yes” vote BRANZ us as people who want to help stop the rot.

Tom Innes is Senior Ecumenical Chaplain at University of Canterbury

Caritas backs a YES vote

July 31, 2009

Catholic aid agency Caritas Aotearoa NZ is backing a “Yes” vote in the upcoming smacking referendum, but acknowledges people could, in good conscience, vote either way.

A citizens initiated referendum on the question “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” runs from July 31 to August 21. The result is not binding.

The referendum came about after a 390,000-signature petition last year.

The Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007 allows reasonable force to be used for limited reasons, but not for correction. The act removed a wide-ranging defence of reasonable force.

A parliamentary compromise in 2007 saw police given discretion not to prosecute where the force used is inconsequential.

Caritas believes the law is therefore a good balance between child protection and the rights of families to make decisions for themselves without undue government interference, often described as subsidiarity.

This is in line with Catholic social teaching and prevents unnecessary prosecutions, Caritas said in statement.

The bishops’ conference also sought a balanced solution in their 2007 statement “Children are Precious Gifts”.

Because the referendum is seen politically as a vote of support for or opposition to the current law, Caritas recommends a “Yes” vote.

Director Mike Smith said the referendum question will not give a clear answer about child discipline because a person could support the 2007 compromise while voting either way.

Thus the “ambiguous” question means “many New Zealanders who support efforts to reduce violence against children may, in good conscience, still feel obliged to vote ‘No'”.

Caritas called for more parental education and believes referendum funding could have been better used this way.

A police activity review showed that there were no prosecutions brought for child assault which involved smacking between October and April.

Out of 279 “child assault events” attended, 39 involved minor acts of physical discipline and eight involved smacking. Police prosecuted four of the former and none of the latter.

Rabbi Johanna Hershenson: Our legacy is the example we set for our children

May 18, 2009

Like many other religions rooted in nationhood, Judaism is not simply a treasure trove of ritual holidays and life cycle events. Judaism is a way of life. Our sacred texts inform our way of being in the world, not only our gestalt (world view) but also our daily conduct. The relationship between parent and child is no exception.

The Talmud, our largest compendium of case law, instructs (Kiddushin 29a):

What are a parent’s obligations regarding a child?

They must bring them into the faith community, teach them values and appropriate conduct, lead them to learn a trade and start families of their own. And there are those who say parents are also required to teach their children to swim in the river.

It is not all that difficult for us to accept this set of parenting guidelines. It is indeed the role of parents in our society to prepare our kids to be self-reliant and accountable for their choices in life. The challenges arise when our children present their own developmentally appropriate obstacles to our parenting…

Some Torah (first five books of the Hebrew Bible) commentators suggest that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden illustrates human development from childhood into adulthood. At first we are happy that the garden (our home of origin) provides what we seem to need when we need it. When we’re hungry, there’s something in the pantry. When we’re tired, there’s a bed or a cushion to ease our rest. Despite having what we need, moments arise in which we want more or we want something different. And so, Eve tastes from the forbidden fruit of the tree in the centre of the Garden of Eden. Challenging authority is part of our process of development into fully functioning capable adults. Breaking free from the spoon that feeds is essential, albeit often disruptive and even painful.

The Talmud tells a story about one particular sage’s challenging teen son (Kiddushin 32a):

Rav Hunah considered tearing up his son’s favourite silk shirt in that son’s presence saying: “He does not honour his father and mother, therefore I will go and see if he flies into a temper or not.” The other sages counsel him: “But perhaps you will cause him to fly into a temper. If he does, you will have violated the precept – You shall not place a stumbling block before the blind.”

While we are responsible for our children’s welfare and self-sufficiency in adulthood, we are also warned by Jewish literary tradition not to exploit developmental blindspots. Using force because we can justify it in our role as the ones in charge is simply not acceptable. Provoking our children in a way that teaches abuse of power is akin to placing a stumbling block before the blind.

Part of growing up is learning how to manage anger and rage. Anger and rage help us differentiate from our caregivers and make strides out on our own. At the same time, when we are children we don’t know how to cope with the power of that anger and rage. Parents have the responsibility of “teaching their children how to swim in the river.” Swimming in the river of life requires skill, self-control, and instinctual knowing of when to fight and when to redirect our activities. Everything we do matters because our kids are watching, listening, and learning.

As our children transition into adolescence and adulthood we celebrate a ceremony in which grandparents and parents pass a Torah scroll down through the generations to the child who is ready to accept it. It is important for us to remember each time we engage in that “passing down” that our children learn from our conduct moreso than our words that are not reflected in the manner we behave. The real Torah, or legacy, we hand our children is the example of how we are with them in the daily to and fro of life.

Johanna Hershenson is the Rabbi at the Wellington Progressive Jewish Congregation – Temple Sinai.

This article is one in a series on Religious Attitudes to Child Discipline, which includes perspectives from Anjum Rahman (Islamic), Margaret Mayman (Presbyterian), and Richard Randerson (Anglican).

Bishop Richard Randerson: Too precious to damage

May 12, 2009

The cards are stacked! The shape of the question in the Smacking Referendum makes sure of that. “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?” It’s rather difficult to say Yes to that. It suggests we support the idea that “good parents” might be “criminals” if they give their child a “smack” as part of “correction”.

After all, it never hurt us when we were growing up, at least not most of us. And we got far worse – strapped or caned at school, given a hiding at home (“your father will hear about this when he comes home”), and look what fine and responsible citizens we have become as a result!

So the cards are stacked in this referendum. The numbers voting “No, good parents should not be criminals”, could well be a majority.

But suppose a different question were asked. Suppose the question was “Should parents who seriously assault their children, causing physical and emotional injury, have a lawful escape from the consequences of their actions?” It’s hard to imagine a majority would say Yes to that proposition. Yet it’s precisely because that sort of thing was happening that the move to change the law came about. Child abusers could rely on the escape afforded them under the old Section 59 to go scot-free.

I was part of the public debate when the law was changed. I was part of a deputation of church leaders who handed Helen Clark a statement saying that we supported the law change because we thought there should be an end to legally condoned physical abuse of children. The vast bulk of New Zealanders would say there should be an end to any physical abuse of children. The law change is an important step to achieve that.

The new law has had no dire consequences. Police have a discretion not to prosecute when an alleged offence is “inconsequential”. There have been a few prosecutions where children have been assaulted in a more serious way. But no evidence whatsoever that large numbers of “good parents” are being dragged before the courts and made “criminals”.

More positively, the debate has aroused renewed attention to what good parenting really means. Co-operative problem-solving approaches between parents and children can lead to deeper relationships and an atmosphere of love and trust rather than one of fear and punishment. It is also saying that children are people too. It is illegal to physically assault an adult. Why should it be OK with kids?

For me one of the most significant features of the debate when s59 was being changed was that although a majority of New Zealanders opposed the change, there was a solid consensus for change among the organisations who actually knew at firsthand why the change was essential. These were groups like Barnados, Save the Children, Plunket and Unicef – people who day by day were on the front line dealing with some of the tragic consequences of the message the old law sent. Popular opinion can be out of touch with reality, and this case was surely one such example.

Our children are too precious to damage. Each one is special in the eyes of God and the whole community. To vote Yes in the coming referendum does not mean we are saying “Yes, good parents should be criminals”. It is saying something of far greater importance. It is saying “Yes, we believe it was right to close a legal loophole for hurting children”. Let’s keep it that way.

Richard Randerson, CNZM, was appointed 2000 Dean of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland. He is also Vicar-General, from 1999, and Assistant Bishop from 2002 of the Anglican Diocese of Auckland in the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia.

Margaret Mayman: A Christian Perspective on the Child Discipline Referendum

May 6, 2009

In the second article in our series on religious attitudes to child discipline, Rev Dr Margaret Mayman explains why she strongly supports a YES vote.

Two years ago, our congregation, St Andrew’s on The Terrace, supported the law change that removed the defence of reasonable force for the purposes of correction of children. Now we are arguing that the law change be retained and that citizens should vote “Yes” in the referendum.

Prior to the law change, there had been terrible cases of child abuse that had not resulted in an assault conviction because of the use of this defence. New Zealand has appalling rates of lethal and non-lethal child abuse and there is strong evidence that abuse often occurs as an escalation of physical punishment. The law needed to be changed to ensure that the children received equal protection.

The engagement of religious groups in public policy matters is controversial. Our view follows that of twentieth-century German theologian, Deitrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer rejected the idea that faith was something inward and private with no relevance to society or politics. He wrote as a Christian engaged in profound opposition to Nazism and in criticism of Christian withdrawal from politics. He believed that the Church had a prophetic imperative to speak out for those who could not speak. In his case, for the Jewish people who were being brutally persecuted by the German state. Bonhoeffer believed that the witness of the Bible, and particularly the life and teaching of Jesus, required public advocacy. In his Letters and Papers from Prison, he wrote: We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcast, the suspects, the maltreated, the powerless, the reviled – in short, form the perspective of those who suffer.

Our faith community, located in twentieth century Aotearoa, is engaged in supporting the law change, and in voting ‘Yes’ in the referendum, because we believe that suffering children are the ones whose perspective should be the basis our public response. We do not expect that our voices, as religious people, should be given more weight than any other group participating in the public discourse, but we nevertheless have an imperative to speak out and a right to be heard.

Progressive Christian voices are needed to balance those of religious conservatives who advocate for the continuing use of physical force to discipline children.

Biblical Interpretation

We believe that the Bible “contains the inspired word of God.” This word is mediated to us through the words of human beings who were subject to their culture, religion and history. We read it now with the guidance of the Holy Spirit (the aspect of God that is present within and among us all) in light of our cultural and scientific knowledge. The Bible was written down over a period of 1500 and covers a historical period even longer than that.

As followers of Jesus, we see a clear mandate toward non-violence in all aspects of our lives. We believe that the recorded interactions of Jesus with children in the New Testament call us to a radical respect for the personhood, and therefore the bodily integrity of children.

Key biblical passages for our understanding of our responsibilities towards children include passages such as Matthew 19: 13-15. When the disciples tried to rebuke people who brought their children to Jesus. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs. And he laid his hands upon them and went on his way.”

Jesus clearly felt love and compassion for children, adding that his disciples should “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. …So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:10, 14)

Reading the stories of Jesus teachings about children, and his interactions with them, in the gospels, we find no justification for physical punishment, let alone any directive for it.

It is true that there are biblical verses that might suggest that physical punishment is endorsed. They consist of a smattering of verses, primarily from the Book of Proverbs. The commonly quoted “spare the rod and spoil the child” is not actually from the Bible, though Proverbs does include “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.”

Thousands of years of physical violence and assaults have been justified by this proverb and a number of others. However, twenty-first century Christians are bound to interpret the Bible contextually and in light of knowledge developed since the scriptures were written. This includes knowledge about child development and of the damage caused by physical punishment.

No one today interprets the Bible literally on this issue, despite the claims of conservative Christians that they do so. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses told the people of Israel that “If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father and mother, who does not heed them when they discipline him, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the gate of that place. They shall say to the elders of his town, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of the town shall stone him to death. So you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel will hear, and be afraid.” (Deuteronomy 21: 18-21).

For those Christians who insist that the Bible requires parents to use physical punishment, they must account for this instruction that parent is required to put to death the persistently disobedient youth.

Within Christianity, the teachings and actions of Jesus, and his consequent understanding of the person and will of God, transformed the systems of violence and punishment. The religious narrative changed from an authoritarian God to a God who relates to Jesus and to all people as a loving parent.

Progressive Christians believe that Jesus teaching about love, forgiveness, and reconciliation compel us toward a path of non-violence in all aspects of our lives, including the way we raise children in families and communities.

The only words attributed to Jesus that could be construed to justify punishment can be found in Revelation, which relates a vision recorded by John long after the death of Jesus. In Revelation 3: 19, he said: “I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.” It contains nothing specific about children and reproving and disciplining are not necessarily physical.

Another text cited from the New Testament is Hebrews 12: 5-11. The author justifies physical punishment by drawing upon an understanding of ancient history filled with divine punishment. He refers to his own experiences of childhood punishment as “painful at the time.” Nowhere does the author invoke the teaching of Jesus to confirm his beliefs. His words have been used to justify much suffering. His is a theology of an abused child.

Other New Testament sources include Paul’s epistle to the Colossians. Paul commanded children to obey their parents, but added an important injunction to parents, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart.” In Ephesians 6: 1-3, Paul again urged children to obey and honour their parents, but he again added the instruction: “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4).

In other passages in his letters, it is clear that Paul accepted the institution of slavery while at the same time seeking to soften it. Nineteenth century Christians realised that to take seriously the teaching of Jesus about the dignity of all people, required that slavery be ended. Our interpretations of the Bible do not stand still.

Breaking Wills

It has been an assumption of Protestant theology, since its inception, that children are born sinful and disobedient and that parents must use physical discipline in order to save them from their depravity. This understanding was developed in detail in Christian parenting manuals from the nineteenth century and continues today in parenting material written by some evangelical Christians.

Progressive Christians are reclaiming a new theological anthropology that stresses the blessing of children, not their sinfulness. We have particular responsibility to guide them into a mature relationship with God and we cannot do that by fear or violence.

Parents, like all Christians, are required to show compassion and gentleness, including in the way they discipline their children.

Christians have contributed negatively to a culture of violence in the home. It has been reinforced by inadequate biblical interpretations and inadequate ethical reflection. As a faith tradition, we bear responsibility for the damage done to so many children in the name of our faith. In advocating for repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act, and in supporting a ‘Yes’ vote in the forthcoming referendum, we are beginning to redress that injustice.

Creating a Good Society for Parents and Children

I am concerned pastorally for parents and children in Aotearoa. Many of our congregation have children of our own, and we understand the enormous challenges that parenting presents. We sympathise with parents who in times of great stress lash out violently towards their children. We believe that the law change sends a clear message to parents so that in times of stress they will be able to curb the emotional response to hit their children. Rather than increasing the burden of parenting, it will provide a very strong message that there are other, more effective ways of disciplining their children.

We also respond to those who claim that physical punishment did them no harm as children, and that they are able to control the delivery of violence in such a way that children will not be injured. This claim is contestable in that there is increasing evidence that harm is caused even when physical injury does not result. Given the very high incidence of child abuse and death in New Zealand, we all have a moral responsibility to protect children from parents who are clearly unable to limit physical punishment to a non-injurious degree.

In the end, violence is violence wherever it occurs. In a civilised society, we should not refuse to protect those most vulnerable. Our statistics, on international scales, are truly a cause for shame. We must do better to protect and cherish children, who are like all humans, created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27; 5:2).


Religious groups do not have a right to compel government to adopt their understanding into law. However, we have a responsibility to speak up for those who cannot speak, those who are vulnerable and powerless. In this case, we speak for the rights of children to bodily integrity and spiritual well-being, believing as we do that that the law change benefits adults as well. Inflicting violence on others damages the spirit of the one who perpetrates violence.

The law is working well. The wording of the referendum question is misleading and misguided, ignoring the discretion that the police have in regard to prosecution. I strongly support a “Yes Vote.”

Rev Dr Margaret Mayman
St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Anjum Rahman: An Islamic perspective on child discipline

April 17, 2009

Physical violence as a form of discipline is standard for most cultures around the world. Many Muslim parents are in the habit of using physical punishment, sometimes of a severe nature. This is despite there being no verse in the Qur’an requiring or even condoning the physical discipline of children. Neither is there any instance of Muhammad ever striking a child. He never used violence as a form of discipline on his own children or grandchildren.

There are some instances where physical punishment is allowed, for example to ensure that a child completes the daily prayers. In this example, physical discipline can only be used as a last resort for children of 10 years or older.

Even the most conservative scholars agree that a child should not be struck in anger. There is a strong requirement in Islam to show love and mercy towards children, and to preserve their dignity – this is just as much a right of the child as the right to be fed, clothed, and educated. One of my favourite stories is this one:

Abu Hurairah reported: The Prophet (Muhammad) kissed his grandson Al-Hasan bin `Ali in the presence of Al-Aqra` bin Habis. Thereupon he (Al-Aqra` bin Habis) remarked: “I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them.” The Messenger of Allah (Muhammad) looked at him and said, “He who does not show mercy to others will not be shown mercy”.

From my own experience, I have never seen a child hit or smacked in an absence of anger. I’ve never seen or experienced a parent who has sat down with the child, explained what was done wrong in a loving manner, and then smacked the child with love. I’m not saying it never happens, but that I haven’t seen it. Smacking has either been a response of the moment as a result of anger or a calculated attempt to instill fear.

Fear as a method of raising children is effective in that it limits behaviour and enforces compliance. The consequence is that this fear damages the relationship between child and parent. Children are unlikely to confide their troubles to parents who they fear. A parent should not be resorting to fear, but to respect and love. The best form of discipline is, of course, being an example yourself of the kind of conduct you wish to inspire in your children.

Given this background, I had no problem with the 2007 changes to Section 59. I don’t believe it criminalised parents who smack their children, but rather it removed a defense for those who abuse them. There was a lot of benefit to the debate as well, in that many parents started thinking more deeply about how they disciplined their children. Many sought more information on better disciplinary techniques which would improve their parenting skills.

The proposed referendum is mischievous in its intent. The wording does not mention Section 59, it does not provide any solutions to dealing with the “reasonable force” defense which resulted in juries discharging parents who had used severe forms of physical violence. The referendum question shows little interest in the welfare or the rights of children, and that is its biggest failing. Children are not able to speak or advocate for themselves, nor do they have any ability to participate in the law-making process. It is up to us, as adults, to protect those rights and ensure that the vulnerable are kept safe.

Anjum Rahman is a founding member of Shama (Hamilton Ethnic Women’s Centre) and the Islamic Women’s Council, as well as being involved with the Hamilton Peace Movement and various interfaith activities.  She was a Labour list candidate at the last election, and blogs at The Hand Mirror.

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

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