Spare the Rod
By Robin Grille, New Matilda, September 28, 2005

Psycho-historians and social scientists have long argued that the most certain way to ensure peaceful, just and sustainable societies is to renounce violence and authoritarianism in the raising of our children. Well, the New Zealanders are taking an interesting step in this direction. Our friends across the Tasman have put a bill before parliament to stop parents smacking their kids. What has led the Kiwis to take this extraordinary step, and would this measure eventually produce the gains, social harmony, justice and peace that psycho-historians and psychologists have predicted?

In a new trend quickly spreading around the globe, smacking seems to be losing its aura of acceptability. Many people are aware that the Swedes abolished corporal punishment in their homes in 1979. What few realise is how many countries have followed the Swedish example. The same ban has now been adopted by 14 other European nations, and commitments to proceed with full prohibition are current in the Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Greece.

Still more nations have acted to introduce better child protection without amending their Constitutions. The highest courts of Belgium, Switzerland, Italy and Portugal have ruled that any kind of corporal punishment against children, whether at school or in the home, is unacceptable. We can soon expect these court rulings to be enshrined in legislation in these countries.

'The Rod of God'

The UK government has fallen foul of the Council of Europe for being one of the few recalcitrants still eschewing reform. The European Court of Human Rights has found unanimously that the 'reasonable chastisement' defense under UK law failed to give children adequate protection. Among the British people, however, the call for abolition is gathering momentum. This movement is spearheaded by umbrella organisations such as 'Children Are Unbeatable!' - an alliance of more than 300 groups including the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), Save the Children, Barnardo's and the National Children's Bureau.

But this is more than a chic European phenomenon. All countries – including Australia - that have signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child are, under Article 19, obliged to protect children from all forms of physical and psychological violence. A global initiative to end all corporal punishment of children was launched at the UN in April 2001, citing research that shows smacking has no positive effects, and that corporal punishment in general – even when it is thought by parents to be 'light' – can be psychologically damaging to children. Outside of Europe, Israel has comprehensively outlawed the smack, and the Taiwanese president is urging his country to do the same. New Zealand is poised to be the first southern hemisphere nation to give its children the same protection enjoyed by adults.

The Canadian Department of Health mounted an educational campaign to teach parents non-violent alternatives to 'discipline'. In January 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada re-evaluated the constitutionality of section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which justifies physical punishment of children in the name of correction. While stopping short of a full repeal, they voted to limit the scope of this defence by restricting hitting to certain ages, with limited force, and only to certain parts of the body. The movement for a full repeal of section 43 remains vigorous however.

Among modern democracies, the USA has, arguably, the highest rates of child-spanking. A nylon rod and polyurethane 'chastisement tool' are openly for sale there. In 22 of 50 States, schoolteachers use a wooden paddle to redden student's bottoms. It seems to confirm the predictions of social scientists that the States which allow corporal punishment in schools tend to have the highest crime rates, and that the USA has the highest homicide rate in the developed world and the highest incarceration rate in the world.

The USA is not a homogenous culture, however. In Massachusetts, where corporal punishment has long been abolished in schools, the town of Brookline has just become the first smacking-free town, signalling public non-acceptance of this parental practice.

The pressure for change continues to mount around the world as many more nations - including Ireland, Spain, South Korea, Fiji, Haiti and South Africa and now New Zealand - are pursuing prohibitions through their parliaments. A majority of New Zealand MPs are in favour of this child-protective law reform, and over 50 government and non-government organisations – including the Office of the Children's Commissioner, the Public Health Association of New Zealand and UNICEF New Zealand - have declared their support. In the meantime, the North Island town of Ngongotaha has pre-emptively declared itself a 'no smacking community'.

The most ardent detractors in New Zealand have been religious schools and institutions such as the Maxim Institute, a right-wing fundamentalist think tank. One Christian school protested by sending all the parents a brochure instructing them on how to hit their children with implements. The school principal stated: 'We are helping parents raise children in a biblical way;' and that smacking or spanking a child is: 'balanced, it's nurturing, it's safe.'

Sue Bradford, the Greens MP who is sponsoring the child protection bill, is concerned at the brochure's suggestion to use a 'stiff flexible rod,' and at the statement: 'the key to spanking is LOVE.' The same trend has been seen in most countries seeking to spare the rod. Christian schools have fought hard for caning rights in the UK, South Africa, NSW (where the cane was banned in schools in 1997), and in Victoria, which is set to become the next State to ban the strap in all schools.

As a smacking-friendly culture, Australia is one of the remaining enclaves among developed nations. But judging by world trends and developments in our neighbourhood, our turn may soon come for a total ban. As a signatory to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Australia is expected to fall into line – and in fact, Tassie could be the first state to comply. The Tasmanian Commissioner for Children and the Tasmanian Law Reform Institute have already called for a repeal of the defence of 'reasonable correction'.

So, where are these changes likely to lead us? Will our children be cast adrift into anarchy? So far, Sweden is the only country in which an entire generation of children has grown up free of corporal punishment. Since 1979, there has been a marked reduction in assaults on children, and the child homicide rate has been virtually eliminated: it was zero for fifteen years running. Sweden has enjoyed a steady decline in youth crime, substance abuse, rape and suicide. It would seem that giving children the same protection as adults has been remarkably successful for Swedish children, and for Swedish society as a whole.

If the Swedish example is anything to go by, some heartening social changes could be anticipated in New Zealand and in other abolitionist nations.

Could some of these social improvements materialise for Australia if we followed suit? Social scientists have found that individuals who have been raised by authoritarian parents tend to be more conservative in their political leanings - they even tend to oppose the environmental movement. One wonders then, what a ban on corporal punishment would do to our political demographics.

In any case, it looks increasingly likely that some parents will soon need to say goodbye to the smack, and that the 'rods of correction' will need to be archived.


About the author
Robin Grille is a Sydney based psychologist, and author of Parenting for a Peaceful World (2005, Longueville Media).

Published Comments

The few times I smacked either of my daughters, I knew that I had utterly failed as a parent. I only ever did it when I was completely at my wits end and did not know what else to do. I hit out out of weakness, not strength and the 2 or 3 times it happened, I always apologised immediately to my child and confessed my own feelings of helplessness. I was always wrong to do it, it was always useless and, though I never hit remotely hard, the minute I had done it I regretted it.

Anyone interested in this should read Alice Miller, particularly 'For your own good", a fascinating insight into how violence by parents against kids creates violence.

I find it hard to reconcile many Christian's beliefs with their love of child beating, and the idea of doing it with LOVE gives me the creeps.

Jane Caro
September 28, 2005

As well as the effect of corporal punsihment on the child, there is an equal loss of sensitivity not to mention distress and shame one feels on perpetrating such an act (of violence).

I once found myself compelled to go through with punishing, by cane, a school boy (at a high profile Sydney boys' school); I not only regretted the situation I found myself in, as a teacher, especially the loss of a friendly (innocent?) relationship with the boys, but I also felt wretched in myself at having carried out such violence. Having resolved never to use that method again I discovered just how unnecessary even the detention lists were, for it was my responsibility to create a safe happy environment for all in my charge. In essence, I was a part of the problem though obviously not the cause of it.

Would that many Christians could read their Bible, not as a set of (at best) vaguely understood stern rules, but with such understanding that they are enabled to live an authentic life with faith in others, a life of engagement with and trust in their own children; the wonderful thing is that one's children will, in turn, respond with such love and trust that one will wonder that the very thought of perpetrating violence against another could occur.

Is it possible, even, that Australians can learn to live without the fear and rage so strongly expressed by our political leadership with their harsh laws against those who have upset them in some small way? Is it possible we might one day have a leader who can genuinely display moral leadership rather than leadership based on fear and harsh punitive laws?

It's not just the example some religious people interpret from their scriptures, it is all too obviously the example we seem to get from our 'tough' political leadership.

John Leggett
September 28, 2005

I attended a Catholic boys’ school in the 1950s and have spent all my life since involved in education. As a young teacher in Catholic schools I was expected to use corporal punishment. The religious order I taught with had in its rules the statement, ‘Corporal punishment is not to be the normal means of discipline’ but of course it was. For a while I used the strap but after a few years gave it up. It made me feel sick using it and hearing it being used.

Since I have often reflected on why Catholic schools then were as reliant on violence as a way of maintaining discipline. The order I taught with were Irish in origin and Ireland has long been a violent place. So has England where a lot of our educational culture comes from. The order also taught mainly working class boys. They had most of their schools in poor areas where the boys experienced corporal punishment at home and expected it at school. Some boys were loathe to come to school and loathe to learn. There was a culture of dragging them through, making them upwardly mobile in spite of them selves. But this working class thing should not be over stressed. The Jesuit schools were not generally for the working class but they were into violence too. I am less sure about their use of corporal punishment in Australia but a friend who attended their premier school in England has horror stories of the taw, their version of the strap.

Another reason for corporal punishment being the norm was the combination of large classes (some of my colleagues even in the late 1950s had ninety in a class), inadequate teacher education and very badly resourced schools. Too many teachers were just getting by.

Then and in the years since I have heard boys and men skiting about how many ‘cuts’ they got, how they topped the class in the number of ‘cuts’ in 1954, and how none of it did them any harm. I have no doubt that they got hit a lot. In some class rooms the strap was used all day like a sort of violent muzak. But I do not believe them when they say it did them no harm. A reformed alcoholic friend of mine who is now dead used tell the story of being in a line of boys at a prestigious brothers’ school, all were being given six cuts. When he got to the front of the line the brother said, ‘You’re too skinny to be worth hitting son,’ and let him go. He was still telling the story as an old man and still reliving the hurt of being mad a fool of in front of his peers.

Now as James McAuley says of a similar incident, ‘We were all caught in the same defeat.’ It does not help to keep reliving the past. But it does pay to avoid like the devil any chance of returning to it.

Graham English
September 30, 2005

I abhor violence in the home, on the street, on the football field or exporting to other countries. But, I don't consider aggressive tackling within the rules of football as violence. Violent behaviour in any of these situations should be subject to national or international judicial penalties. However, I do not consider discipline of children by mild smacking within a family environment as violence. Furthermore, I utterly reject the intrusion of the state and its agents into this area. I have read an enormous amount of research purporting to show that smacking within a normal, that is a loving, family environment is harmful. But I have also read the research highlighting the procedural flaws in the former, leading to unjustified conclusions. I have also read the research which avoids the procedural flaws of the negative research. This latter research (by scientists, not biblical scholars), demonstrated that smacking in a normal family environment at worst, does no harm to the child and at times is beneficial to the child's development as a socially integrated person. Furthermore, in normal families that smack their children, the incidence of smacking is very low. This all accords with my own extended family experience.

I am sure many fathers have experienced the irritation of watching their wives ceaselessly nagging their children and by doing so, disrupting the general calm of the home when just one mildly delivered, but threatening word from the father, results in the child's instant acquiescence. But, to be effective, there needs to be a potential reality behind the threat.

I wonder if people so concerned with this issue have ever experienced living in a real family, that is one with more than two children. The first two, if girl and boy, is just the learning phase.

Smacking at school is another matter about which I am a little ambivalent, leaning slightly against.

I suffered a moderate amount of `corporal punishment' in a school environment as described by Graham English. I find it hard to remember much about it so assume in my case, it did little harm. I also played football vigorously and well at school, but I could never countenance violence on the football field, or for that matter, bullying in the school yard. Damien Dunlop
September 30, 2005

The tired old defences of corporal punishment include the narcissistic claim that a smack does not constitute violence - read: does not feel violent to the smacker - and the double-standard that resents state intrusion in the home. What would you think if I said: 'I reject the intrusion of the state into my right to slap my wife in the privacy of my own home, just a light disciplinary slap of course'? Damien, your comparison of smacking and a tackle on the footy field does not hold water. Corporal punishment is the intention to cause pain. I don't care if you protest it is mild. Ask a child how it feels, children are the ones on whose behalf you are voting for smacking rights, they don' seem to be allowed a vote on this. A footy tackle is about fun, sport, and stopping the guy with the ball. It is quite different from the intent to cause kids pain.

You might feel ambivalent about the cuts in school, but over 80 nations have eliminated this, and they tend to have less problems of school violence as a result. The fifteen or so countries that haved banned smacking in the home also fare better on many social indicators including violence, crime, teenage pregnancies, and more. If smacking had no alternatives, how have they been doing it? I know families with four and five children who have never once resorted to hitting their kids.

Many people who were hit as children claim it did them no 'harm', since they don't remember the event. Conscious memory has nothing to do with it. And it is not about 'harm'. It is the unconscious emotional memory that operates beneath awareness, altering attitudes. Precisely the people that deny their own pain as children are the ones who deny their children's pain.

You can cling till kingdom come to the idea that there are 'procedural' problems with the research that provides evidence that smacking is harmful or ineffectual. Strictly speaking, perfect proof does not exist. The only way to PROVE that smacking is harmful is to take many hundreds of kids, randomly assign them to smacking and non-smacking childhoods, and observe the results in follow-up studies well into adulthood. Then replicate the experiment around the world. Impossible, and unethical. The same objection can be raised by hair-splitters with vested interests regarding the 'evidence' that tobacco causes lung cancer. Since the evidence is correlational, there is no proof of a causal link.

I have viewed the evidence against smacking, and looked at the evidence to the contrary and the critiques of the former. Believe me, the cards are stacked badly against the pro-smacking camp. Funnily enough, we prohibited the smacking of wives not so long ago, to the protests of many, without any evidence at all, not even poor quality evidence, that it causes harm.

Robin Grille
October 3, 2005

Copyright 2005 © New Matilda

Return to:
Robin Grille Index
Research and Informed Expert Opinion
Front Page