A question smacking of deceit

Last updated 09:16 08/06/2009

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Happily, my children are not yet at the age when they look wildly around for the nearest exit whenever I mention my schooldays. In fact, they're fascinated by these tales of the ancient world, particularly when the subject of corporal punishment comes up.

OPINION: My kids love hearing about the teacher who used to soak his strap in warm water every morning; about the uncle who was regularly caned on the back of the legs for refusing to get a haircut; about the family friend whose secondary school had a tradition of caning the last boy home from the annual cross country.

Presumably, my children are enthralled by these anecdotes for much the same reason that I used to be transfixed by stories of the thumbscrew, the rack and the dunking-stool: because there's a perverse pleasure in rubber- necking on barbarism from a safe distance.

The notion of corporal punishment in schools is thrilling rather than scary for my kids because it is unimaginable to them that their teacher might beat them until they bleed for spelling a word wrong. School has inevitable trials, but my children have never associated it with pain, terror and humiliation.

New Zealand was among the last countries in the industrialised world to ban corporal punishment in schools, but attitudes have now changed to the point where most parents would be outraged at any suggestion that teachers be allowed to take a belt, strap or cane to kids.

Bafflingly, though, it appears to be the location of the beating rather than the act itself that some of us object to. We don't want kids being hit in the classroom, but we're happy for them to be hit in the home.

Despite clear evidence that the world around us is chock-full of people who couldn't successfully raise a family of tadpoles to adulthood, we believe anyone above the age of 18 can be trusted to use restraint, caution and common sense in deciding exactly how hard to hit the children in their care.

This is presumably why, in July and August, we will go through the utter tedium of yet another public consultation exercise on the child discipline law.

Two years ago, by a majority of 113 votes to 8, Parliament gave children protection from physical assault by their parents. Advocates of smacking claimed the changes would lead to the criminalisation of good parents, but this has not happened.

Police reviews of the law have found that there are very few complaints about smacking, and that parents are not being prosecuted for minor assaults.

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Opponents of the law change started getting signatures for a petition calling for a referendum even before the act was passed. So now - even though this was one of the most widely debated policy changes in New Zealand's recent history; even though it was passed by a huge majority; even though the law is clearly working well - we're about to spend $10 million on a postal vote referendum.

Much as I hate to kick a dog when it's down, it's hard not to put at least part of the blame for this on the media. It was never legal to hit kids: the law change simply prevented people from using the "reasonable force" defence if they attacked their children with, for example, a plank of wood or a horsewhip. And yet most media outlets continue to use the lazy, inaccurate and partisan term of "the anti-smacking bill".

Bob McCoskrie, self-appointed champion of "the family", is given far more media coverage than Unicef, Barnardos, Save the Children or any of the other organisations that support the act, and his continued bleating that the law victimises good parents is largely left unchallenged.

The referendum question - "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?" - not only implies that all good parents smack, but wrongly suggests that a parent who smacks will be prosecuted. It is outrageous that, in a recession, we should be required to spend $10 million for the privilege of answering this deceitful question.

Meanwhile, nearly one child a week is admitted to Starship children's hospital with serious injuries inflicted by an adult.

It took generations for us to believe that it was unacceptable to beat children in schools. It will take generations for us to believe that it is unacceptable to beat children in our homes. But we have to start sometime.

- The Dominion Post

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