By Sue Reid of Masterton

As a parent, some days are diamonds and some days are just plain stone. There are times when children meet you in the hallway ‘looking for war – don’t disappoint them’ says veteran child psychologist Dr James Dobson. Parents need to be in control because they have the responsibility to train their precious children to be mature adults with good sound character.

No easy task for the best of us. Children are in learning mode and parents have been given the support in law to use ‘reasonable force’ to do their job. Section 59 of the Crimes Act will be challenged in parliament in coming weeks with the goal of repealing this right for parents. In the course of debate it has been labeled ‘the ban of smacking’.

MP’s and child advocates are trying to move away from this because it is unpopular with the majority of families – a large portion of the voting quota. Instead, the MP’s are trying to focus the debate on court cases whereby parents have ‘struck’ their children and extreme force is debated. But to take out the phrase ‘reasonable force’ in reaction to some cases leaves parents wide open for prosecution. Even if this is not their intent, the law would not give adequate support for parents disciplining their children.

Already our Prime Minister, Children’s Commissioner, Plunket, Barnados, Save the Children and the Law Society have all been vocal in their support for the ‘repeal of section 59’. Glaringly absent is the voice of reasonable, loving parents – the very people such a law change will effect. Lots of ‘blanket statements’ which are reactionary and emotive have been reported full of many myths and misunderstandings.

Much of the research already done, needs to be aired at this time and the facts set right. We have many on the bandwagon letting their ideology get in the way of what is sound, reasonable and fair. Common sense has been left aside and advocates push on regardless supposedly representing children’s rights.

Children do not exist separate from their parents or care-givers. I have trouble with modern terms such as ‘children’s rights’ (not of an age to also have responsibilities) and the phrase ‘child poverty’. Usually a whole family is in crisis or impoverished and thus should be tended to as a whole unit.

On July 1st, just last week, the Care of Children Act became law. Guardians are now called day-to-day carers of the children. Such change in legal language continues the erosion of the parent’s role in their children’s lives.

To repeal section 59 of the Crimes Act is another way to negate the importance of freedom for parent’s to train their children. The hand over my daughter’s hand to help her follow my request to pack her toys up could be interpreted as reasonable force. I would lose my defence of such force if I was called to account in court.

Parents start to lose confidence in their role in raising kids and fear reprimand from state agencies. This is supported by intensive research that has been carried out in countries already having physical punishment bans in law.

Sweden’s laws have been in place since 1979, Finland in 1984, Denmark in 1997. Collectively, these countries give us the advantage of foresight – where do laws banning physical punishment lead to?

Ruby Harrold-Claesson, Attorney-at-law from Nordic Committee for Human Rights in Sweden says “Social authorities and the courts enforce the law concerning the child’s right not to be subjected to physical punishment, irrespective of what the child has done. Many Swedish parents are therefore afraid of their children and dare not correct them for fear of being reported to the police, indicted and fined or sent to prison.”

Many myths mislead the public on this issue. There is a man in Blenheim who has $10,000 in trust and will give it to anyone who produces a credible study that shows that smacking is harmful. It has not been rewarded yet.

Myth number 1: ‘studies show that smacking is harmful’. Using physical punishment in an extreme severe way or too frequently is clearly harmful to children but research is still ongoing as to whether typical smacking is more detrimental than other disciplinary options. Current evidence suggests that non- abusive smacking for a 2-6 year old is effective for acts of defiance over the options of timeout, reasoning and removing privileges.(1) “The law against physical punishment does more damage to children than a smack from a mother or father. When the authorities intervene in the life of a well functioning family, its life is destroyed. There is nothing that can mend the resulting hurt, pain and bitterness and children are the losers.”(2)

Myth number 2: “reasonable force equates to violence”. Too often the word smack gets changed to hit, belt, hiding or violent bash all in one sentence. Maybe a definition of reasonable force would be helpful. Both opponents and advocates are increasingly in agreement with this. An open-handed smack on a leg or hand without implements sounds more reasonable than a blanket ban.

Myth number 3: “Studies in Sweden showed violence has gone down”. Quite the opposite, with parents lacking confidence in shaping their children’s character delinquency and anti social behaviour rises. Rates of child to child violence have risen in those born after the 1979 ban.(3) “Because parents have been dis-empowered, the police must intervene in many more incidents than was previously the case” says Professor Robert E Larzelere PhD. Countries that have low rates of violence do not have bans on physical punishment. So it is an assumption to equate the ban in physical punishment with a lowering in violence. It is more credible to look at family structures and to note that the unacceptably high rates of violent child deaths have been at the hands of a non-parent, often the mother’s live-in bed-mate. Wairarapa has far too much experience with these tragedies of children killed. Children are not mini adults they need parents to nurture than and raise them to know what is wrong and what is right.

A move to change these laws is serious. With 177 countries in the world, only four have confirmed anti-smacking laws – Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark. Yet they still experience headlines such as ‘child abuse increasing’, ‘many beaten children call BRIS (children’s rights in the society) helpline’ and ‘Alarming increase of deadly child abuse’.

It is helpful to look at these nations and the vast research because their laws have been in place since 1979.

Let’s not mince words here, advocates for a repeal of Section 59 have a ban on smacking firmly in their sights. The proposed law change would be a disaster for children and their families – only giving enhanced powers to state and intervene in our lives.

It is obvious that many families have adopted ‘no smacking’ policies in their families and well done for that choice, but it is not helpful to then assume everyone should do so – it becomes a bit like someone forcing their religion on you. It is helpful for certain ages not the only form of discipline used.

The ‘anti-smacking’ advocates have promoted great education about alternative options which are helpful to many parents. As the debate seems to reach fever-pitch seek out the research, know the facts and sift the ideology. Look to the horizon and see what the law would look like in twenty years.

Of course child deaths and true family violence should be addressed but the answers won’t come out of a law change to repeal the now famous section 59 of the Crimes Act.

1. ‘Sweden’s Smacking Ban: More Harm Than Good’ Robert E Larzelere PhD University of Nebraska Medical Centre
2. Ruby Harrold-Claesson Families First Issue 2 Autumn 2001
3. Robert E Larzelere
4. Ruby Harrold-Claesson

First published in:
The Wairarapa Times-Age
Saturday, July 9, 2005
Saturday Features
Digging Deeper column page 4


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