I smacked my children from time to time into their early teens. Today the Royal Australian College of Paediatricians would have me locked up for it. If the RACP has its way, parents who smack will be charged with assault for meting out the slightest physical punishment.
Yet they remain silent on the emotional abuse wrought by parents. Many of us believe it acceptable to rant and rave at our kids when things go wrong. The rage of parents blights many families. It’s ugly, unpredictable and kids learn to walk on eggshells around us, accepting self-serving excuses about work stress, financial issues and relationship problems with spouses.
In that context, I would argue the occasional smack is the least of a kid’s problems. It’s a question of proportionality.
I was beaten as a kid and mostly it was richly deserved. I got away with many things I should have copped a whack for. As a 10-year old, I belted my sister in the face, giving her a black eye that lasted for weeks. My Dad was furious, too angry to hit me that night, he said. He ordered me to be at home the next night when he would give me six strokes with a cricket stump. It was a painful beating, even my sister thought he had gone too far, but it was sweet relief after the terror of the 24-hour wait. The message didn’t need words. A bully will always meet a greater force.
Dad was calm, almost apologetic, about it. I never hit a woman again, even when women were hitting me (again richly deserved).
The RACP’s Associate Professor Susan Moloney makes the point that many cases of physical abuse are “the result of physical punishment that became more severe than intended.” She’s right. The line between between getting a beating and getting beaten up is not a fine one. The harrowing memories of parents taking their rage out on their kids stay with people for life. And they deserve to be locked up for it, like any other violent offender.
But, it could be argued that a little stress, even if it is physical, is part of becoming a resilient individual.
My daughter’s school recently advertised a seminar on how to deal with the issue of pampered kids who become useless, fragile adults.
In the blurb they quoted Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon from his book, Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age.
“The body cannot learn to adapt to stress unless it experiences it. Indulged children are often less able to cope with stress because their parents have created an atmosphere where their whims are indulged, where they have always assumed…that they’re entitled and that life should be a bed of roses,” Kindlon writes.
And roses have thorns don’t they? The occasional smack on the bottom should be a reminder that there are boundaries. We can treat our kids with respect without sacrificing our authority, or falling to common assault.
But to legislate against smacking seems futile and liable to undermine the authority of parents who exercise restraint in their discipline. If parents don’t understand the line between smacking a child and fully-fledged abuse then no new law can help. It’s another example of the intrusive, rule-driven culture that we have fallen to. Once upon a time, we dealt with the dilemmas and decisions of life by using our own judgement, the simple test of right or wrong. Now we have out-sourced common sense to others who reach ever deeper into our lives. Despite this doctrinaire approach, deviant behaviour is in fact a much greater threat than it ever was. It’s not that a few more rules will curb that deviance, but that the more rules we have, the more rules we need and the more police to enforce them. There are no longer societal norms we all understand, only laws. That is the real crisis we face.
In 1979, Sweden brought in a ban on smacking, which prompted more than 20 countries, including New Zealand, to follow suit. The proponents of the ban said that this would reduce the incidence of violence, suggesting that kids who had not been smacked would not smack. This proved to be completely false.
According to a paper published in the International Journal of Criminology and Sociology this year, the rate of all assaults increased dramatically in Sweden. Compared to 1981, criminal statistics in 2010 included about 22 times as many cases of physical child abuse, 24 times as many assaults by minors against minors and 73 times as many rapes of minors under the age of 15, the IJCS noted. Although the first cohort born after the spanking ban showed a smaller percentage increase in perpetrating assaults against minors than other age cohorts, those born since the spanking ban had almost a 12-fold increase in perpetrations altogether.
The ban in NZ was repealed after a police review showed that the law had not reduced the number of physical abuse cases against children either. Its critics, mostly social conservatives, complained that the ban had deterred good parents from properly disciplining their children. The number of parents investigated for minor acts of physical discipline almost trebled but there was only minimal reduction in actual child abuse incidents.
Moreover, children are already protected by assault laws. Secondly, assault laws are an absurdly blunt instrument.
A person who without consent “strikes, touches, or moves, or otherwise applies force of any kind to another” is guilty of assault. This includes “applying heat, light, electrical force, gas, odour to such a degree as to cause injury or personal discomfort.” Yes, the person who farted on you on the bus this morning could be guilty of assault. But he could also have you charged because your camera phone flash caused him personal discomfort.
This black letter approach to assault contrasts with the nebulous definition of the emotional abuse of children.
The Australian Institute of Criminology says there are so “many legal and operational variations in the definition of (emotional) child abuse in Australia, which makes it currently impossible to provide reliable, consistent national data on incidence.” The AIC settles for “a constant attitude or behavior towards a child which is detrimental to or impairs the child’s emotional and/or physical development. This may take the form of scapegoating, emotional rejection, isolation, or continuing verbal abuse.” Try framing a charge around that. Yet we get all hot and haughty about trying to charge parents with assault for smacking their kids.
The greatest challenge is to avoid the victim culture that is overwhelming the resilience of our kids. There are bigger things to worry about than a smack on the bottom. If, for my sins, I had another child at this late stage, I’d certainly do things differently. I wouldn’t carry Dad’s old cricket stump but I would speak more softly. And I would still smack.