Protect our children – vote ‘yes’

The question has been posed in such a way that those who designed it expect people to answer ‘no’. They hope it will draw a gut reaction from people.

What do organisations such as Plunket, Barnardos, Parents Centre, Jigsaw, UNICEF, Every Child Counts and Save the Children have in common besides their absolute dedication to the promotion of the wellbeing of children and families? They are urging all New Zealanders to vote ‘yes’ when they see this question in the upcoming NZ Referendum on Child Discipline 2009:
Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?

Protect our children - vote 'yes' Archdiocese of Wellington The question states that smacking is part of good parenting and implies that all parents who smack will be prosecuted. Neither of these is correct. Further, the question has been posed in such a way that those who designed it expect people to answer ‘no’.  They hope it will draw a gut reaction from people—I was smacked by my parents, I have smacked my children or I might smack my children in the future. Does that make my parents or me a criminal? Could I criminalise someone else for doing the same thing? Of course not so the only choice I can make to justify my or my parents’ conduct would appear to be to vote ‘no’.

But in voting in this referendum, the challenge for New Zealanders is to move beyond the simplistic ‘I smacked, I’m not a criminal so I’ll vote no’ response.  What the referendum is about is an attempt to put pressure on the government to reinstate Section 59 of the Crimes Act which gave adults a legal defence that they had used only ‘reasonable force’ if charged with assault on a child.

The problem always was, of course, what was ‘reasonable force?’ There is no evidence that parents had been found guilty of assault where they had ‘lightly smacked’. But there were many examples of parents successfully escaping conviction even when many people were appalled at what was put forward by those parents and accepted by juries as ‘reasonable force’, including children being hit with weapons such as riding whips, sticks and bamboo rods.

The repeal of Section 59 gives children exactly the same rights as any other person (or animal) in our society not to be hit. We might use different words and try hard to make out there is a difference between smacking and hitting because we feel the former is ok but the latter is not. In the end, they are both actions which cause pain to a child to change their behaviour. When we hit, we teach the child that causing pain and using force to impose our will on someone weaker and more vulnerable is acceptable.

Of course, the repeal, of itself, has not and could not stop the culture of violence that pervades our society. It will take much more widespread and sustained efforts from every sector of our society to do that.
The repeal was, however, and remains, a necessary step along the way to developing a national culture that does not tolerate violence in any form. Even though most smacking of children does not escalate into abuse, a significant amount does. Research shows that most child abuse cases begin as physical punishment. What is more important is what happens in every case smacking is used—it models to children that violence is an acceptable way of resolving conflict.

Much is made by some Christians of the biblical quotation ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’. If you are interested in this, go to the Rev Nove Vailaau’s very good discussion of this at Essentially he argues that yes, God is a God of justice but God is also a God of love. As Christians, we seek to live our lives modelled on the values of Jesus Christ. What then is the answer if we ask ourselves the question ‘Would Jesus hit a child?’

Has the repeal of Section 59 resulted in the criminalisation of ‘good’ parents? Police must investigate complaints of hitting and child abuse—our children deserve nothing less. They did that long before the repeal of Section 59 and will continue to do so.

There is no evidence that the Police are investigating cases where the complaint is that a parent has ‘lightly smacked’ their children. When we are told that the Police are doing that, we would do well to remember the recent case of the Christchurch father who was quick to claim publicly that he only ‘flicked the ear’ of his four-year-old son. Yet he was found to have punched his son in the face. People who commit acts of violence are renowned for minimising their violence.

We often feel powerless in the face of what seems to be an overwhelming problem to do anything that might make a difference. Or we look at what we do and see that it is other people’s behaviour that is unacceptable, not our own. By heeding the evidence that shows that smacking children is not an effective way of disciplining children and is thus not ‘good parental correction’; by knowing that while it used to be legal for husbands to hit their wives, it was never right so why should the hitting of children be any different; by learning how to positively discipline children; and by voting ‘yes’ in the referendum, each of us will be doing something significant to change the culture of violence that is too prevalent in New Zealand.

Sharron Cole is the former deputy chief executive of the Families Commission.