Australian parents should reject any smacking ban

Online Opinion – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate 30 July 2013
The proposal to ban smacking in Australia is motivated by a commendable desire to reduce child abuse – a desire we all share. But Australian parents need to reject this particular proposal as it will do more harm than good, will have no effect on child abuse rates, and will criminalise good parents raising great kids.

The rate of child abuse deaths in New Zealand have stayed at the same rate as it was before the anti-smacking law was passed, against the clear will of the people, in 2007. Cases of actual child abuse have increased by a third in the past five years.

Six years on from the ban on smacking in NZ, opposition remains as strong as ever. A referendum in 2009 found 87% opposition to the smacking ban, but the results were ignored by the National-led government, who had previously lobbied strongly against the bill while in Opposition.

The ban has targeted good parents, rather than the rotten parents who are abusing their children, and has wasted valuable time and resources of the police and social agencies.

Any claims that a ban on smacking will lower child abuse rates are simply ‘hot air’. A recent survey of 1,000 NZ’ers found that only 12% of respondents think the law change has had any effect on the rate of child abuse.

The survey also found that two out of three respondents said they would flout the law and smack their child to correct their behaviour if they thought it was reasonable to do so. Mothers and younger parents were more likely to have smacked. The law is held in contempt by New Zealanders.

Another survey in 2011 found that almost a third of parents of younger children say that their children have threatened to report them if they were smacked. And almost one in four of parents of younger children say that they have less confidence when dealing with unacceptable behaviour from their children since the anti-smacking law was passed.

The latest review of police activity related to the anti-smacking law also shows disturbing trends, and reveals that almost 600 kiwi families have had a police investigation for allegations of smacking or minor acts of physical discipline since the anti-smacking law was passed yet only 9% of them have been serious enough to warrant charges being laid. The report also referred to an increase in false allegations of assault. This may come from neighbours or even the children themselves.

Let’s be quite clear. Child abuse is unacceptable. We must take pro-active action and tackle head-on the difficult issues of family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, violence in our media, mental illness, and other key factors identified by the various UNICEF, child agencies, and Children’s Commissioner’s reports.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is constantly quoted as the driving force for banning smacking, yet clause 5 of this Convention acknowledges the important role of parents in raising a child with appropriate direction, guidance, and correction.

It recognises the right, and duty, of parents to provide direction and guidance in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.

This is what opponents to smacking won’t acknowledge. The capacity of a child is very different to the capacity of an adult. That’s why we have laws protecting children from sexual involvement and exploitation, driving vehicles, voting, drinking alcohol, the ability to enter in to certain contracts, watching violent and sexually explicit movies etc. That’s why we need to train and correct children in a way that is different to how we deal with adults.

Despite what anti-smacking groups will try and tell you, good parents will be treated as criminals under a ban. Beware of promises from politicians that good parents and smacking will not actually be targeted if the law is changed – as kiwi parents were told. Smacking a child will be assault. The police and social agencies will have to investigate any complaint made against a parent for smacking or even removal to ‘time out’ as this will involve a level of force, and quite probably resistance! This will immediately place a family under enormous pressure. The police have to enforce the law, regardless of what politicians say.

Child abuse is already illegal in Australia as it is in New Zealand. Banning smacking isn’t required because the law already says that child abusers have committed a crime.

Banning smacking will not stop child abuse, as has been evidenced in NZ. In 2003, a UNICEF report identified family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, and non-biological adults living in the home – as the factors most closely and consistently associated with child abuse and neglect. Of the five countries with the lowest child abuse death rates in that UNICEF report, four allowed smacking!

Sweden was the first country to ban smacking in 1979. What does this Swedish utopia look like? One year after Sweden’s smacking ban, 3% of their parents admitted beating up their child – 2 to 5 times higher than the overly high American rate. Physical child abuse increased almost 6-fold during the next 15 years, according to Swedish criminal records. Criminal assaults by minors against minors increased over 6-fold during that same time period. The ability of parents to enforce appropriate discipline continued to erode until only 31% of 10- to 12-year-olds thought that parents had the right to use grounding in 2000.

And appropriate smacking does not damage children or teach them to be violent.

There has been much research done in this area. But the studies cited by opponents of corporal punishment do not adequately distinguish the effects of smacking, as practiced by non-abusive parents, from the impact of severe physical punishment and abuse. Nor do they consider other factors that might account for problems later in life, like whether defiant or aggressive children might be more likely to be smacked in the first place. It simply assumes that the outcomes of a light smack will be the same as a child who is physically abused.

A 2007 Otago University study found that children who were smacked in a reasonable way had similar or slightly better outcomes in terms of aggression, substance abuse, adult convictions and school achievement than those who were not smacked at all. And a study by the Christchurch School of Medicine found there was no difference in outcomes between no smacking and moderate physical punishment. They said, ‘It is misleading to imply that occasional or mild physical punishment has long term adverse consequences’.

A study of teenagers by a teamfrom the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and published in the journal Parenting: Science and Practice in April, found the effects of discipline – such as verbal threats or smacking – are offset by the child’s feeling of being loved. The researchers said being punished is unlikely to result in antisocial behaviour further down the line, as long as the child believes their punishment is coming from “a good place”.

It also says anti-smacking policies are problematic because they contradict many adults’ own childhood experiences with discipline and their long-term outcomes, and this study demonstrates one condition under which discipline does not result in negative outcomes for the child in later life.

This study joins what the researchers refer to as ‘emerging theoretical and empirical evidence’ which challenges the academic and political view that smacking is child abuse and should be banned.

Ultimately, it’s not the technique that the parent uses to correct their child that’s necessarily the problem – it’s the way it’s used.

We definitely need to send a strong message that violence and child abuse is unacceptable.

But in our attempts to send a clear message, we should not end up treating good parents as criminals under the law. That is an unacceptable burden to great mums and dads who should be supported, not prosecuted.

Children will never be safe until we are honest enough to identify and tackle the real causes of child abuse, rather than pass ‘feel-good’ but ineffectual and, ultimately, harmful laws.

The proposed ban runs counter to scientific evidence, previous experiences with similar bans, and the wisdom of previous generations.