There’s been a significant development in New Zealand, with their Parliament passing a law which has been described as making it illegal for parents to smack their children. According to a report on the ABC website, New Zealand now “joins only a handful of European nations to legislate against the use of unreasonable force in disciplining children,” (although according to this media release from last year by the Australian Childhood Foundation, “fifteen countries such as Sweden, Germany and Israel, have banned the use of physical punishment of children by parents.”)
This topic is a perpetually controversial one, and usually generates strong community debate. For a topic that is so controversial, it is fascinating that the law passed with such strong support in the New Zealand Parliament – with a full conscience vote on the matter producing a huge majority of 113 MPs in favour and only 7 against!
I think debate on this matter often suffers from people having different interpretations of what such a law would mean and how it would operate. This new law in New Zealand amends Section 59 of their Crimes Act to remove the ability of a parent to claim as a defence that they were using “reasonable force” in disciplining or correcting a child.
According to Sue Bradford, the MP who put the legislation forward,
“neither the Select Committee, myself or anyone else supporting the Bill has ever intended that all parents who ever lightly or occasionally hit their child should be subject automatically to investigation and prosecution.
What we have been simply seeking to do is to remove a defence which has allowed some parents to get away with quite badly beating their children, and most significantly, has stopped police taking action in many situations of violence against children.”
In Australia, Dr Joe Tucci, currently CEO of the Australians Childhood Foundation, has been campaigning on this issue for a long time. In this interview from 2002, he said
It’s legal to use physical discipline but it’s not legal to assault your child. And that’s the difference, the difference is not about, talking about whether parents should smack or not smack, this is about the law and whether parents who cause an injury to the child under the name of discipline should be held accountable.
A report released last year asserted that “45% of adults believe it is okay to leave a mark on a child as a result of physical punishment.”
There is a difference between having a personal belief that smacking children is a bad idea and agreeing that it should be made illegal for parents to use physical force against a child. However, I wonder why our society continues to see it as OK, (and indeed many people see it as sometimes desirable), for a parent to use force in disciplining a child, but it is generally not legal for any other adult – a teacher, babysitter, child care worker or anybody else – to use force to discipline a child.
ADDENDUM: This link goes to a short backgrounder giving basic details about what is (and isn’t) in the New Zealand Bill that has just passed.