We have voted No. Now what?

We have voted no. Regardless of my personal vote, the democratic outcome is that a vast majority of votes cast were of the opinion that smacking as “part of good parental correction” should not be a criminal offence. I’m not going to fiddle with numbers as some others have done to claim an apathetic majority. That’s not how democracy works. If you don’t vote, you don’t get a voice.

So then. A few months ago I made my personal opinion clear. Reading that post again, I still stand by it, with some clarification. After discussions with many people I hold to be wonderful parents with truly incredible kids, I’ve changed part of my opinion. You may not care, but purely for positioning, I accept now that smacking should not be a criminal offence in all cases, and frankly I’m a little ashamed that I’ve said otherwise. I truly do not wish criminal charges against any of the people I know who happen to smack their kids. Hopefully you can accept that one man’s dogma can be altered by exposure to fact.

The law, as it stands, clearly allows for “justifiable force” in several instances. These cover the range that most people would hold to be reasonable: avoiding danger, stopping disruptive behaviour, etc.. What the law does criminalise, and what I remain against, is the use of physical punishment for correction after the fact. I’d love to hear from the majority if they intended their “No” vote to enable physical punishment for correction, as opposed to instantaneous intervention.

If the question had been “Should a smack, as an instant intervention requirement, be a criminal offence”, I would have voted no. Would you have voted “Yes” if the question were “Should a smack, as a premeditated action intended to correct misbehaviour more than x minutes after the event, be a criminal offence?”. Or am I utterly barking up the wrong tree?

I ask this because as I read more and more online discussions about smacking and physical correction, the misinformation is utterly baffling. I’ve seen the argument that all mammals use physical correction, so it’s natural. I don’t however remember seeing a mammal hit its offspring some hours after the original event took place.

Please, this is not judgemental in any way. I’m truly, deeply interested in how to make this work, because it’s obvious that a minority of us don’t understand. You the majority owe me nothing, but I’d love to chat about your intentions so I can learn.

P.S. I remain a bit offended at Larry Baldock cheering like a madman at the result, after he was quoted as saying “I’m not opposed to the wooden spoon or ruler because you can control things with that better than you can with an open hand.” However I do understand he is on the fringe and not representative of many people who voted “No”.

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  1. Again, not that it matters, but for the record: I was smacked as a child, and hit with a belt. I have two kids (5 yrs and 1 week). I have smacked neither. I’m completely happy for people with no kids to comment on this. Everyone has a valid opinion.

  2. Thanks for the blog post Ben, definitely a better medium than Twitter for this discussion. I do appreciate your stand on the subject, and hey, if you can raise a child without ever needing to smack them, more power to you.

    Anyway, I think the biggest problem with this whole discussion is that it’s a massive grey area, and I can’t see a way that we can define what’s good parenting and what’s not in a few lines on a legal document. How do we define a smack and how do we define abuse? Who decides what’s bad parenting and what’s good? Maybe it’s just me but what we need right now I think as Karl mentioned on Twitter, is some clear clarification for the general population around what the current law is.

    Those are my thoughts anyway, but I’m not a parent so grain of salt etc.

  3. Hi Ben,

    I’m glad to see your position is softening. The problem with instantaneous correction is that these are often the times when a smack is done in anger. In my experience it is better to calm down and then punish the child for the wrong they have done with an appropriate and strategic smack after explaining to the child what they did wrong and why they are being punished.

    Its worth pointing out that a smack in these situations is not always helpful – it depends on the child. For instance, smacking our second daughter did more harm to our relationship with her (as in it would drive her emotionally away from us). In addition she has a high pain threshold so it was not well felt anyway. In this case we found seperation to be very effective, so we’d send her to her room and then go and explain to her why we sent her there – and she would be quite repentant.

    With our other two we smacked them calmly and explained to them why they were being punished and they were almost instanly repentant and in most cases never recommitted the offence.

    Your mileage may vary, but IMHO taking smacking away from parents removes a very effective tool of punishment. Its not the only tool, and it is often not effective, but done properly it is a valuable tool for raising responsible children.

  4. First a bit about me. I have two kids, have smacked them in the past, and am ashamed of that. Still voted no.

    For me the ‘yes’ team did it to themselves with their hyperbole and logical fallacies. It wasn’t enough that kids could once again be liable for a ‘smack’ – no, sites such as ‘dearnz.com’ (referred to by yesvote.org.nz) had to slant the issue by saying “Vote No to legalise child abuse”. They’ve since backpedalled, equally dishonestly.

    A week ago, people all around the world – thinking we were crazy enough to ‘legalise child abuse’ unsurprisingly voted ‘Yes – it should be criminal’, now we’re left with the same statistics, but without the slant, making it appear as if the ‘world’ in visiting dearnz.com were voting on the same question as New Zealanders were in the referendum.

    For me this wasn’t a vote on S59. It was a vote against the groups that would have you believe we’re voting for child abuse due to their inability to formulate a valid argument based on the facts alone. They underestimated the intelligence of the NZ public, and were (I want to say smacked-down) emphatically defeated.

    Ben Gracewood – you’d have to be the most reasonable and objective anti-smacker I’ve come across yet – the VoteYes movement would have done well to have you in their leadership. You present your position carefully and without hyperbole where so many others have sickened me with their false slippery-slopes (you mean we’re voting on child SEXUAL ABUSE as well!?!). My thanks to you.

  5. This would have been easier to swallow if it weren’t a clumsy and dishonest referendum. Signalling to the architects of it “yes, you can push us around by playing lowest common denominator cards” rubs me all the wrong way.

    As for the most charitable interpretation of the referendum, as to whether corporal punishment should be legal, I have to take my lead from my step mother. She’s a veteran ECE worker. She can bend children to her will with grace and good humour. She doesn’t fight them. I watch her with the kids every chance I get to try and see her hand at work.

    With her example I can’t agree with a special dispensation for parents to hit their kids. Let’s be honest — it won’t stop the bad cases. But it will let others see the broken windows earlier, and it will move more to learning how to argue (a la Thank You For Arguing) rather than resorting to using their age and size.

  6. It’s not about whether smacking is good parenting. It’s about whether it is something the government and law enforcement should be involved with.

    What makes things worse is the incredibly soft stance on *real* crime we have (spend a day at a district court if you’re not convinced). And yet a smack is something that needs criminal offense status?

  7. Tony, surely the government absolutely has to be involved in any form of physical punishment against children to some degree a least? NZ has the 3rd worst rate of child abuse in the OECD.

    Smacking, like it or not, is on that spectrum. Everyone I know that smacks is absolutely nowhere near involved in abuse, but somewhere people are crossing a line. If the government doesn’t set that line, who does?

    This is not ‘PC nonsense’. It’s part of the range of things that need to be in place to stop abuse.

    Note: PART of a RANGE of things. Not the be-all and end-all.

  8. There is a world of difference between “any form of physical punishment” and “child abuse”. They are absolutely not the same thing. IMO the government has no business getting involved in how I raise my child at all, other than ensuring that basic fundamentals are covered (e.g. minimal health care, minimal education, intervening when the child is unsafe).

    Smacking is *not* the start of child abuse, or the start down the road to child abuse, or anything like that. They are entirely different things. Relating smacking to child abuse just takes away from the problem of *real* child abuse (whether physical or otherwise).

    There are many things that the government could do to reduce child abuse in NZ. There is no evidence that criminalising a parenting style (not one that I personally agree with, but that’s up to me and my wife) is going to help with that. It would be far more useful to educate people, to provide safety nets for parents on the edge, to try and reduce the amount of unplanned pregnancies, to improve the general standard of living (because happy people are less likely to abuse), and so forth. Those are *real* objectives that would make a positive difference, without making good people into criminals.

    Of course there is a line to be set, and of course the government sets it. But the line should start where children are actually unsafe. A smack does not make an unsafe environment. (Which is not to say that unsafe environments don’t contain smacking).

    I didn’t say anything about PC nonsense (although there’s plenty of that in child care / education in NZ). The previous law, which provided the ability to deal with *real* child abuse, was sufficient.

  9. Tony it’s hard to fathom I know, but for some (appallingly bad) families, smacking will be the start of child abuse. It’s just a fact. At what point does it become abuse? How many smacks? How hard? With what implement?

    I can’t say enough that I support the right of my friends to smack if they choose to do so. They are good people. But I’d also step in if I saw someone using too much force – like the guy punching his kids in Christchurch.

    There has to be a line. Fuck knows how it would be set. But how do you expect the government to determine what is ‘unsafe’ (your words)? Obviously you know your smacking is safe, but is your neighbours? Do you care? Or will you not interfere with their parenting?

  10. For those (appallingly bad) families, smacking will not be the start of child abuse. By the time *those* families get to smacking, they are already on the road. There are other issues (which should be addressed), that led to the situation. I absolutely do not believe that if you took two identical families, and one smacked and the other didn’t, that the smacking family would be more at risk of child abuse. Correlation does not prove causation, despite what people naïvely believe.

    We have established procedures for defining lines – judges and (particularly) juries of our peers. It’s hardly a perfect system, but it can get the job done. I think if you randomly took 12 people from the public you would quite easily get a consensus as to what is “abuse” and what is just parenting. You might have the vast majority of those 12 personally feel that smacking isn’t the right way to discipline a child, but they would be able to distinguish the difference. Based on this, just like with adult abuse or all sorts of other crimes, the appropriate agencies (e.g. police) can intervene where it is clearly a problem.

    For the ‘grey’ areas, where it’s hard to see the line, you build a case against the parent(s), and they present their side, and the jury decides who is correct. It’s how the law works. The law does not (or at least should not) work by just drawing the line at “0”, when that isn’t what the populace thinks.

  11. Most interesting comment I've seen so far is on this piece – A half year of hell in New Zealand. It lists all the cases of child abuse in the last 6 months. There's a comment below it that says:

    t's hard to convey sarcasm in a posting, but I'm really glad we have the anti-smacking law in place to protect all these children and prosecute the offenders!

    Pretty much sums it up for me – the current law, or its absence, would have made no difference to any of these cases.

  12. So exactly how many minutes and seconds are we talking here when considering “x minutes after the event”? Do witnesses need stopwatches? 😕 Gets tricky dunnit?

  13. Why are all the pro-smackers so angry at their children?
    Why do they need to calm down and beat them later?
    Or risk losing their tempers if they beat them at the time of whatever terrible thing the evil child did?

    It IS a sliding scale, and I don’t care if you only “ever” use a smack.

    You’re assaulting them when there is no need. They are only children.

    They are only children, and you should sort yourself out and stop being so nasty to them.

    They shouldn’t have to live in fear that their next mistake will result in an angry, violent attack, from someone bigger, stronger, and louder then them.

  14. Alan :Why are all the pro-smackers so angry at their children?Why do they need to calm down and beat them later?Or risk losing their tempers if they beat them at the time of whatever terrible thing the evil child did?
    It IS a sliding scale, and I don’t care if you only “ever” use a smack.
    You’re assaulting them when there is no need. They are only children.
    They are only children, and you should sort yourself out and stop being so nasty to them.
    They shouldn’t have to live in fear that their next mistake will result in an angry, violent attack, from someone bigger, stronger, and louder then them.

    Do you have children? If you do, you clearly never get angry with them regardless of what they do, and even if you do, you never act in anger. Wow. If only the rest of us had it together as well as you do…

    Do you know people who smack their children? Clearly they all bludgeon their children – so no wonder you think the way you do.

    Speaking from the other side of the debate, I don’t know if your accusations do your argument any favours… They dont seem… well balanced 🙂

  15. Darryl, you’re right – my post did seem a bit over-emotive. Banged it out in a hurry.

    Yes, I do have children, and no, I don’t get angry enough to want to hit them. Why would I? Obviously everyone gets tired, and/or irritated by their kids sometimes, but I’m referring to the people who get so worked up they need to go away and calm down before they mete out their *necessary* (rolls eyes) punishments, otherwise they seem to think they might do something they regret. What is up with that?

    Kids do tons of things every day which you don’t necessarily want them to do, everyone knows this, and everyone also knows it’s not because they’re purposely trying to be bad. It’s just because they’re, well, kids… why get so angry about it?

    Thats what hitting kids is about, isn’t it? Being angry? Surely no one really swallows that “for their own good” stuff? I’ve never needed to hit my kids to get their attention, or to teach them how to behave. I think hitting kids is all about losing your temper, not teaching good behaviour. All it teaches them is that physical assault is an acceptable way of dealing with people. And perhaps some fear of their parents into the bargain.

    And if it’s not out of anger, then why hit them? Because it helps them to be better people? Sorry, but that’s just misguided. Here’s a secret: hitting kids is completely unnecessary. Let me just repeat that: completely unnecessary.
    They can be brought up to be perfectly decent citizens simply by spending time with them, explaining when they do wrong, and why, and taking alternative actions where required. I know it’s harder work, and takes more time. But aren’t they worth it?

    Ya know, when I was a lot younger, I used to think that when you had a dog, and it did something you didn’t like, the way to deal with that was to give it a good kick. Now that I’ve grown up, I’ve come to realise that is an appalling way to treat an animal.

    For the record, I don’t think people should be criminalised for a light smack either. And it is my understanding that under the current law, they won’t be. But I do know that a light smack, like any other kind of smack, is simply unnecessary. Everyone feels bad after hitting their kids, but there’s this slightly Victorian idea that the kids need it, and you as an adult would be letting them down if you didn’t “do your duty”. But there’s a reason it feels bad – it’s wrong, and it’s not helping.

    Sorry, didn’t mean to rant so much. I told myself I wasn’t going to get drawn into this debate… everyone has an opinion, and all that.

  16. parsley :
    Most interesting comment I’ve seen so far is on this piece – A half year of hell in New Zealand. It lists all the cases of child abuse in the last 6 months.
    I don’t think finding a post on the herald site which include a comment indicating cluelessness about the effect of the amendment warrants being called interesting here.

  17. Hi Alan,

    That is a much better reasoned response. However, I would like to add that your experience is entirely subjective, I have equally valid experience that demonstrates that smacking works in many cases and in fact is far more effective than not smacking.

    Abusing kids is always about hitting them in anger (I not would not say, however, that smacking in anger is always abuse). Smacking children isn’t necessarily about hitting in anger. You may not believe it or agree with it, but that doesn’t change the fact. One of the fundamental issues with most children today is that they are not brought up to realise that there are consequences – even serious consequences to their actions. In fact the reality is that the crime should suit the punishment. Hence, a smack is a good idea when the wrong done warrants it.

    Alan :Kids do tons of things every day which you don’t necessarily want them to do, everyone knows this, and everyone also knows it’s not because they’re purposely trying to be bad. It’s just because they’re, well, kids… why get so angry about it?

    If they do these things just because they are kids, does that mean that we shouldn’t train our children to be more mature? If we should, do you really think that reasoning with your two year old will cut it? Or for that matter that your two year old throws a temper tantrum because they are trying to be good? No – temper tantrums come because kids are trying to get their own way – we call this selfishness and even today it is generally regarded as a bad character trait – something to discourage in children. Nipping this sort of behaviour in the bud early will avoid much bigger issues in the future, and at younger ages negotiating and reasoning just dont work making fixing (or even just managing) this sort of behaviour much harder later on (if not impossible).

    So – while I appreciate your points, I still disagree, and I’m happy to agree to disagree.

  18. Alright – a few things…

    Firstly the biggest problem with the referendum (and in many ways the movement to change the amended Section 59 overall) is the ambiguity of action. Nothing in the outcome of the referendum makes it any clearer what action should be taken to redress this supposed problem with the law. Even the proponent of the referendum themselves can’t agree. Some say revoke the entire thing, roll back to pre-amendment. Others back the Boscowan Bill, essentially allowing a ‘light’ smack with the hand. Baldock (one of the sponsors of the whole thing) thinks sticks and wooden spoons should be okay (at odds with the Boscowan Bill). And that’s people who are very familiar with the whole law.

    Secondly is this stupid idea that the amendment to Section 59 was in some way an attempt to stop child abuse. Clearly it was not. It was instead an attempt to a clear a simple legal basis to prosecute child assault and abuse cases. It removed a common (and occasionally successful) defense to assault charges. It didn’t criminalise smacking (it was already an offense, assault, it just had a legally mandated defense). It didn’t criminalise child abuse, it was already an offense.

    Then there’s the problem of enforcement. Suppose we adopt the Boscowan bill – basically what we have now, but with an exception for smacks that are “trivial” and “trifling” in nature. Hardly legal terms. So in cases were that triviality is in question the police will have to be called, and they will study the available information and make a decision about what action to take. Which is a whole lot like what happens already. In fact if anything no law change is required, simply a set of guidelines for police would do the job.

    Then there’s the whole question of whether, as the question asked, should a smack be a criminal offense? No of course not. People shouldn’t be stigmatised and criminalised for inconsequential smacks. Nor do I believe they were. I don’t want to see people sent to prison, or even fined for a little smack on the bum, but I don’t for a second believe that’s happened. But at the same time I absolutely do not for a second believe that smacking is ever necessary. It may be an option people choose to use, but it’s never the only option, and personally I don’t think it is ever the best one.

    An editorial in the Herald a while ago postulated that it wasn’t the immediate smack on the bum punishment that the No Vote promoters were really trying to defend, but the “wait until your father gets home” smacking. And personally I have to wonder about that – because from a reasonable reading of the law I can’t see that a parent, who engages in the smacking that the likes of Simon Barnett was fighting to defend, has anything to fear.

    If nothing else this whole thing has opened my eyes to a whole bunch of freaky smacking ideas. From people suggesting that smacking should stop by the time they “start school” (WHAT? You only want to smack them before they are five?). To people decrying the removal of corporal punishment in schools (right, so the government can’t remove your right to hit your kid, but can give teachers the right to hit mine?). And weirdest of all, I thought, was the reluctance of Pro-smackers to actually admit smacking their kids (oh, well we have a few times, a light tap on the hand).

  19. Personally I agree with Alan and Dylan. It might just be genetics, but I’ve been able to teach my son about respect (for himself and others), consequences, and all the other things kids should know, without smacking. Perhaps it helped that he could hold a conversation at 2, but I think not. I have friends with an autistic son who I don’t believe have ever smacked either. I truly don’t understand why a loud “No!” followed by “Hot!” or “we don’t do that because …” is not enough.

    I’ve said that I don’t want my friends that smack criminalised. I stand by that. BUT, will changing overall attitudes to physical punishment improve our shocking child abuse stats?

    I’m trying to think of any analogies to other behaviours or laws but I’m struggling. How about when people used to drink and drive without thinking about it? Now most right-minded people will have no problem taking a friends car keys and paying for a taxi. Personally even though I know one beer is no issue whatsoever, I still have a concern in the back of my mind when I drive home afterwards.

    Would we have less child abuse if people had a kernel of concern before smacking? Even though 90% of smackers (like 90% of drinkers) have nothing to worry about?

  20. Ben,

    Ben :
    I’ve said that I don’t want my friends that smack criminalised. I stand by that. BUT, will changing overall attitudes to physical punishment improve our shocking child abuse stats?

    Someone mentioned earlier that few of the pro-smacking advocates have publically admitted smacking their children. The reason for this is that if one person reports it – it has to be investigated. Who wants the police turning up because little Johnny was acting up in the supermarket and wouldn’t be reasoned with? Nobody.

    The problem with the law is that it is not so much changing peoples attitudes (I think attitudes have been much the same throughout this debate) but that it is intimidating good parents who don’t want to be investigated by police for an ear flick or a corrective smack.

    Frankly I resent the fact that our increasingly socialist government is inserting itself into the way I raise my children. Parents who smack their kids to correct them are not the problem – and the difference between a smack and abuse is generally pretty obvious – it doesn’t take a law degree to figure out that someone who repeatedly hits their kids in anger with all their might over a single incident has crossed the line and should be punished. But even then, is it a pattern or a single instance? Isn’t it the patterns we want to stop? Not that I’m justifying such behaviour.

    The problem is that the law doesn’t make this distinction and so we are all lumped together with the abusers to try and get just the abusers. In the process good parents are made to feel like criminals (i.e. lawbreakers) – particularly if they are reported.

  21. Oh, and if you’ve never had reason to smack your children – more power to you. All children (and for that matter parental standards) are not created equal.

  22. Darryl, have you read the legislation? The current law *does* make a distinction in order to not lump people together.

    Remember that the alleged “ear flick” guy actually punched his kid in the face with a closed fist. For crashing his bike. So he hurt the kid for hurting himself. Awesome logic.

    Finally, I really, really hope you’re not implying that parents who don’t smack have lower parenting standards. I’ve had people accuse me of being too picky about my son’s manners. Go figure.

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