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Smacking ban strikes controversial note

The government’s announcement that it intends to change the law regarding corporal punishment against children has renewed public discussion of the rights of children and parents. As in society as a whole, opinion within the Church varies on the issue.

Early last month Prime Minister Helen Clark said the government intends to repeal section 59 of the Crimes Act. This provision allows adults to defend themselves in court against accusations they have hurt children on the grounds their actions were reasonable efforts to discipline.

The government plans to repeal section 59 within two years, mid-way through an education programme aimed at providing parents with non-violent alternatives to disciplining children.

The law change will not ban all smacking of children.

Donna Ellen is service manager of the Methodist Mission South Island’s ChildWise programme. Donna supports the law change and says it will affect the small percentage of people who end up in court for the most serious cases of child abuse.

However, she believes it is important all parents limit the use of yelling and hitting when they discipline their children.

She sites the case of Sweden, which banned physical punishment of children 20 years ago. Between 1975 and 1995 there were four recorded deaths from child abuse in Sweden, compared to 240 children killed in New Zealand in the same period.

“Medical evidence shows that when parents use violence it can progressively become more harmful over time. We have to get the message out that it is not okay to smack and use force,” Donna says.

“While a law change addresses the worst cases of abuse, we have to provide the rest of the folk new strategies for being parents. Positive parenting can help parents establish better relations with children, see the good things children do, and find safe and effective ways to deal with bad behaviour.”

Former Methodist President Aso Saleupolu says most Pacific Island people were brought up in cultures where it is acceptable to use smacking to instil good manners in children. Attitudes vary among Pacific Island societies but in Samoa disciplining children underlies the fundamental value of respect between parent and child and brother and sister.

Aso approves of law changes that would stop the most severe cases of child abuse but he is concerned that an absolute ban on smacking would disadvantage those with different cultural values. Any change must be accompanied by educational programmes.

New Zealand is a different society than Samoa. Communities are larger and there is no monitoring of customs by the extended family or elders. In that context there are no checks on the most extreme behaviour.

“Therefore in New Zealand we need to change our way of thinking and ways of disciplining children. We need to develop greater understanding of the needs of children and their stages of development. As parents we can’t assume we know everything about our children simply because they are our own.”

Aso believes laws on smacking must be made with a recognition of the multi-cultural nature of New Zealand.

“But even when people hold cultural values dearly in an open, modern society cultural values aren’t there forever. We need to help people evaluate themselves and change if necessary for the sake of their children and society.”

Some argue that the issue of smacking must be seen in the wider social context. Lay preacher Rosalie Sugrue says poverty is undoubtedly a factor when there is violence against children. Overcrowding, or a lack of food, possessions and resources can push parents to breaking point.

Like others, Rosalie advocates education for all parents. “Positive parenting should be well modeled. No one should be in any doubt as to what is not acceptable: shaking infants, marking a child’s body, frightening or subjecting a child to prolonged isolation.”

While she supports repeal of section 59 Rosalie does not support a full no-smacking ban.

“There are many worse forms of discipline than smacking. Withdrawal of love, for example, or shutting a child away from others. A lengthy withdrawal of privileges or swearing at a child can be devastating,

“In my opinion government must act to define reasonable force. Punishment that leaves a mark, i.e., causes tissue damage of any sort – bruising, burns, lacerations or swelling – is unreasonable.”

Rosalie says there are many things we can do to stop violence against children. Supporting a law change is just one of them.