A friend of mine was out shopping and gave his toddler son a slap on the backside for some misdemeanour. A middle-aged woman nearby was indignant and told him to pick on someone his own size.
That was 20 years ago and even then using violence against kids aroused strong feelings, as it does today.
Most of us see raising children and associated discipline as a personal issue – not for the community or Government to interfere with. That’s fair enough up to a point.
In earlier times it was a community issue. There is an old African saying that it takes a village to raise a child. This is true for close communities where children are exposed to a wide variety of adult inputs. But it has little meaning in the shift to isolated families separated into individual houses and disconnected from extended family.
Instead, we base our parenting skills on what happened to us and what we see other parents do around us. But it’s easy to overlook three things.
Firstly, that most times when kids are hit it’s on the spur of the moment when a parent is angry. And if it’s not done in the heat of the moment then it becomes the ritualised violence of straps and canes that dominated the schooldays of my generation.
The second is that kids from low-income families are much more likely to suffer violence than kids elsewhere. Having taught for 10 years at schools in low-income communities I can attest to this. Getting “the bash” is a regular feature of many kid’s lives.
This should surprise no-one. This is where our most stressed parents are. This is where families live day to day on earnings from low quality, low-paid jobs. This is where the gaps between family income and family needs are large. This is the coalface of family struggle.
Thirdly, we don’t own our children like we own a fridge, a house or a dog. As parents we have authority over them and responsibility to look after them. But they are separate, vulnerable individuals and if we abuse either role the community must act.
On the issue of violence against children we are surely united on one thing. We need to move from near the top of the list of countries whose children are in danger from parental violence.
The danger is psychological and physical from the kind of thrashings which parents have used Section 59 of the Crimes Act to justify.
This provision has been used to successfully defend parents who have beaten their children with canes and leather belts.
It’s bizarre to think we will be prosecuted if we beat a dog with a riding crop but we have a defence if we do it to a child.
This defence must go as Sue Bradford’s bill proposes.
What about spelling out in the law the kinds of smacking and injury to children that are acceptable? Surely discussion along these lines is just a little bit sickening. We don’t do it for animals so why do it for children? And what’s more we would miss the opportunity to send a powerful message to the community that violence against children is as unacceptable as it is against adults.
A clear message, unencumbered by fine print, is what we need to begin a sea-change in attitudes towards children.
None of this will stop tired, stressed parents at the end of a hard day from hitting their kids. Neither will it criminalise them for doing so.
What it will do is remove Section 59 as a defence for parents prosecuted for thrashing and beating their kids. Isn’t this what we want?
We have the fiercest debates in New Zealand over social policy issues. Perhaps it’s because we feel that so much of the rest of our lives is outside our control.
And so, at the same time as we argue passionately over whether parents should hit their kids, it is disturbing that we express so little commitment to relieve the poverty which grinds down parents and families and is at the root of the frustration and stress which contributes so heavily to abuse of children.
The most important longer- term solution to child abuse will be to tackle economic change head-on.
Elements of those who call themselves Christian would do well to remember that Jesus Christ is reported as having taken violent action only once, not against children but against money lenders.
Now there’s a clear example of Christianity in action. We need more of it.