As Parliament prepares to pass Sue Bradford’s “anti-smacking” bill, the only thing that seems to be clear is that absolutely nothing is clear.
I’m not a parent, and from this position I find it a little difficult to predict exactly how I would raise my children. I would like to think I could do so without ever laying a hand on them, but the ‘unruly child in the supermarket’ model provides a scenario where many people could if not understand, then forgive the parent who gives their child a light smack to get them moving.
What I consider unacceptable is the ‘wait ‘til your father gets home’ punishment, where the child has done something wrong and physical discipline is metered out in a cold, clinical manner. I had such discipline on occasion, and while “it did me no harm” I wouldn’t wish it on my kids.
But I don’t accept Bradford saying that we should pass a law making something –even light smacking– illegal and rely on police and the judiciary to act reasonably in applying it. This is the same judiciary, is it not, who have failed to act responsibly in applying the “reasonable force” test that currently stands, failing to convict parents guilty of what any “reasonable” person would surely call child abuse?
I find it even less palatable to leave such discretion to the police.
Bradford’s Bill has been further watered down –or at least further confused– in the select committee process. The original idea of removing “reasonable force” as a defence has gone, and the Bill instead now allows reasonable force in a number of situations. Most vague is where such force is for the purpose of “performing the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting,” as long as it is not “for the purpose of correction”. Good, that’s so much clearer.
"Reasonable force" remains undefined, which, need I remind you, was the whole problem the Bill was meant to address in the first place.
If the Bill and associated argument seems confused it could be because underlying it are separate aims. One is ideological. Parents shouldn’t smack children, full stop. There’s no need, parents can use time outs and so forth. The second is to stop the situation where the law (or at least its interpretation from time to time) has allowed some parents to beat their children with weapons.
No-one will criticise the second aim, but New Zealanders are clearly divided on the first – although it wouldn’t be unheard of for Parliament to pass such a progressive law. But this is an entirely different discussion to the one now being had, and Bradford’s “I’m not trying to make a criminal out of ordinary parents” line doesn’t wash. She is; the Bill does, the only question is whether the police choose to prosecute. It’s the same as marijuana smoking – the police might confiscate your joint and tell you to piss off, but you’ve still committed a criminal act.
I don’t know what the answer is – defining reasonable force to allow a light smack but not a beating would make sense, but by all accounts this too is fraught with legal issues. Perhaps we go back to the philosophical drawing board, debate whether a smack is ever appropriate and lead by example, as Governments have done with the various anti-smoking laws passed since 1990. You wouldn’t dream of sparking up in a department store these days, yet I remember working in a shop with those big floor ashtrays scattered all over the place, vacuuming up random ash at the end of each day.
What Parliament shouldn’t do is pass a law that criminalises many thousands of parents every day, and just kinda sorta assume that it’ll all work itself out somehow. Cos it won't.
(Read the Bill and its amendments yourself if you haven't already.)