As a young parent I smacked my children. I myself was brought up with the idea that small children needed physical punishment as well as instant reward in order to learn. As they developed language skills and understanding, my children needed to be smacked less often and then the smack was usually for my benefit because I had lost control of a situation and needed to show that I was boss.
One of our children (we discovered later) had learning difficulties. We would smack her more than the others because nothing else seemed to work and it was all we knew – but we could also see that it didn’t work for her because she did not understand what it meant.
We also gave our children boundless love and affirmation and they grew to be happy, responsible adults.
So when the debate began around the proposal to abolish section 59 of the Crimes Act I felt uncomfortable. Of course I was against violence in the family. I was as disgusted as the next person about the injuries some people were inflicting on their children. But was a corrective smack violence? My kids turned out all right. We weren’t violent. What else would you do to correct a child? But my biggest discomfort was in being a hypocrite. Having smacked my own children, how could I now take the moral high ground and tell others they shouldn’t do it? I really felt for young families being left with no ‘strategies’.
What was the repeal of Section 59 designed to do? I thought it was to stop children being killed or maimed by their parents. I could not see the connection between a corrective smack administered lovingly and severe abuse. I wanted section 59 repealed to outlaw abuse but I also wanted parents’ rights to smack protected.
In the event, the law was amended in 2007 to outlaw all smacking.
While all this was happening, my children started having their children. I don’t have to tell you what a huge joy grandchildren are. The depth of love I feel for them is immeasurable and my pride in their parents and the way they are raising them makes my heart sing. And to my surprise, my grandchildren are growing as beautiful young people without their parents using smacking as their primary mode of correction. To see our two-year-old hold up his hand to his bigger brother and say ‘Stop! I don’t like that!’ instead of hitting out at him has me staring in amazement and wondering why I didn’t think to teach my children that!
I don’t think this shift has come from the abolition of section 59, but it has been enhanced by the debate surrounding the law change. Parents in antenatal groups and social gatherings influence each other as they discuss their strategies for training their children and the climate begins to change.
It is a while since I have seen a child smacked in public. I do not believe smacking has gone from all family life, but clearly it has become unacceptable to be seen smacking—a first step in changing attitudes.
Today’s parents are showing us oldies new ways of raising children, and giving them other tools to deal with conflict. I like this new way.
While Section 59 is again in focus through a new referendum, I welcome the opportunity for vigorous, healthy debate and joyfully watch my grandchildren being raised with respect and dignity.
Sue Devereux is a family ministry adviser for the Wellington Archdiocese.
The image shows Sue’s son, Karl, with his daughter, Sophia.