April 3, 2009 / NZ Herald
A year and a half after New Zealand's child discipline law was changed, it is clear more needs to be done to allay fears and encourage parents to raise their children without raising their hands.
In fact, the law is working well and achieving what was intended. Parents charged with assaulting a child can no longer defend themselves in court by claiming they were using reasonable force to discipline the child.
The law change did not introduce any new criminal offence. The offence was, and always has been one of assault; and police continue to investigate allegations of assault on children and prosecute only those where they believe the assault is serious enough to take to court.
Police say that since the law was introduced there has been no significant increase in the number of complaints, investigations, prosecutions or other activity related to smacking or minor physical assaults against children.
It was quite disturbing to hear parents on talkback radio say that now they "couldn't smack" they were forcing their children to eat soap, mustard or even chilli. Or they screamed and yelled at their children to get their attention. How can this help a child learn to behave?
It's difficult to understand why parents would want to use these sorts of strategies when positive parenting techniques are so much more rewarding and effective. A phone call to any family agency such as Barnardos, Plunket, or a search on Google will point them to information on positive parenting.
The Families Commission is one of many organisations who supported the repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act.
Healthy, positive relationships within families do not involve people hitting each other and the commission continues to believe that repeal was one step that, combined with other nationwide efforts to address violence, will help us become a violence-free society. We based our position on research which shows clearly that positive parenting strategies (such as rewarding good behaviour and distracting young children and ignoring minor unwanted behaviour) are far more effective and safer.
Research shows that most child abuse cases begin as physical punishment. There are risks that smacking can escalate to abuse - and the harder a child is hit, the more damaging it is for their future wellbeing.
Hitting children also models violence as a way of resolving conflict. The best and most effective parenting practices do not use physical punishment and positive strategies are better at helping children to learn self-discipline and to behave well in the long term.
One of the objectives of the law reform was to make the law congruent with positive, non-violent parenting messages and the new law clearly states there is no legal justification for the use of force to correct a child's behaviour. This is a direct message to parents encouraging them to use strategies for managing their child's behaviour that do not include smacking or hitting.
More and more parents are learning these skills through the Government's SKIP (Strategies for Kids Information for Parents) leaflets and parenting courses, or through other similar programmes offered by various non-government agencies.
A Ministry of Health Survey in mid-2007 showed that only one in 22 parents considered physical punishment to be effective. Of the parents who had actually used physical punishment in the previous four weeks, only one in three considered it to be effective.
We are now at the point where another recent survey on behalf of the Office of the Children's Commission has shown that 43 per cent of people support the new law.
However, some of this progress could be undermined by the citizens-initiated postal referendum being held in the middle of the year on the question, "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"
Should anyone be hit as a way to change their behaviour - let alone a small child? Should employers be able to smack employees? Should coaches hit team members when they do something to let down the team? Why should it be okay to hit children - who are so much smaller and more vulnerable?
We suspect many people may choose not to vote in the referendum because they can't agree or disagree with the question - or because it's no longer an issue for them.
We need more public education about the law and continued investment in positive parenting programmes. As parents, we all want to raise our children to be happy, well-adjusted adults.
The best parents are those who aren't afraid to seek help and advice. Finding out about new and effective ways to raise our children is a sign of strength, not an admission of failure.
* Jan Pryor is Chief Commissioner of the Families Commission.