Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Smacking Referendum

I smacked my children. When they were disobedient or naughty, as one of a raft of disciplinary techniques, they sometimes got a smack. Twenty, thirty years ago, when I was bringing up children, this was the acceptable way of training a child. It was more acceptable to have a child screaming in the supermarket because their tantrum had been dealt with by a smack, than it was to have the mother ignoring the tantrum and walking away, refusing to give the child the attention they demanded. I know this, because I walked away from any of my children who threw tantrums, public places or not. And my reaction to my child's tantrum drew me the opprobrious looks of others.

In 2007 the Crimes Act was amended so that "parental discipline" couldn't be used as a defence against assault. And now it's 2009 and we're asked again whether a smack should be a crime.

It seems that to those trying to reduce the amount of violence in this country, it has appeared an obvious place to start.
To one of my age and experience, it's confusing. And the confusion requires either a repudiation of the "anti-smacking brigade", an admission that what was normal 20 years ago was wrong, or it requires reflection to discover a new truth.

There are many facets to physical punishment of a child.
In the time and culture in which smacking was the main accepted means of showing who was the one in control, it was for the most part not about abuse. (Here I mean the abuse which has more in common with torture than with loving correction.) It was about discipline, about training, about control. And I make no apology for suggesting that a parent should actually act like the adult in the relationship, and be in control.

But what if that smack because a child constantly disobeyed, pocketed sweets in the supermarket and didn't show any form of understanding that this was wrong - what if that smack - despite taking the child back to apologise and give the sweets back - what if that smack was administered again and again out of desperation and a sense of failure to have taught this child the evils of stealing, and with a sense of a criminal future looming? What if that smack on a Tuesday made it easier to smack again on a Wednesday, and in a moment of anger or resentment or stress - maybe having nothing to do with this particular child at this particular moment - what if that smack turns into something more?

Maybe if the parent has never smacked the child, the possibility of the "something more" just doesn't happen?

But I don't think that outlawing smacking will do a huge amount to stem the real abuse of children in this country.

However I do think there are better ways to discipline a child.

For children who grew up in a culture in which discipline = smacking and who are now the parents of children themselves, a new way of helping a child become the person he or she was born to be, may not be obvious.

The discipline void left by outlawing smacking must be filled with education and showing a new way forward.
I haven't seen this. I haven't seen the info-mercials in our lounge every night showing a better way. Where are they?

I think the handling of the whole "let's not smack children any more" movement has been sadly lacking in common sense. This was a matter that should have started off, not in the halls of power and law, but in our homes. The country is polarised by the repeal of the old Section 59 of the Crimes Act and its replacement with a new Section 59 not because of the effect of it, but because of the way it was handled. In effect, the changing of the law, without the education of the people, is as heavy handed as the behaviour it was designed to stop.

And where has the education been since the amended law was passed?
I don't believe all the dissension over the "anti-smacking law" is because parents want to smack their children, but because they have been dumped on from a great height (Parliament) with a law that tells them they have been wrong - criminally wrong - all these years, and yet they have not been given a plan for how to safely and correctly discipline their children now.
If the people had been trusted with the information about the negative aspects of smacking, shown alternative ways, been part of a campaign to change behaviour which was THEN enshrined in law, this referendum wouldn't be happening.

There are indeed better ways of training a child than using force.
But I don't think a well timed and placed smack as part of parental correction should be a criminal offence.


  1. Nice blog! Love that beach photo!

  2. Interesting....

    I have lots of thoughts but I often think of how as a teacher, it's illegal to smack etc a child in your classroom and the negative behaviour HAS to be dealt with another way (unless you want to find yourself in hot water) - i see it the same when trying to discipline my own children. There's just an unwritten rule in my head that tells me to find other ways to deal with the behaviour...

  3. when madam poured oil all over the couch/carpet. She knew when I shut her in her bedroom that I was VERY angry with her, but I needed the time to think about what I was going to do without her there. I think that was safer for both of us.

  4. An intelligent, considered post. I must admit that I take the point of view that smacking is prima facie an evil. The question then becomes, is it a necessary evil.

    It's been some years since I finished my degree (in psychology) but I seem to remember that the studies at the time suggested that children who were smacked were significantly more likely to go on to commit violent crimes. To me that shows that not only, is it not necessary but that any short-term gain is far outweighed by the long-term damage done.

    I also suspect that you are being a bit too generous when you suggest that people are reacting to the manner in which the law change is happening. I am sure that for a minority this is true, but most people are just not that rational about their beliefs. They tend to assume that the way they have always done things is the best way and are unwilling or unable (there's a whole other debate) to change.

    I completely agree with you, however, that attention to education in this matter is an absolute necessity and sadly lacking.

    Thanks for making me think.


I love your comments! Please share!