Matthew Henry John Bartlett

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Sunday 02 August, 02009

Smacking referendum

by Matthew Bartlett @ 1:04 pm

Despite the Returning Officer Robert Peden’s words “Voting in the referendum is easy”, I am conflicted about how and whether to vote. Smacking is not necessarily abuse, and the current law is bad law. But New Zealand’s problem with violence against children is shameful, and the law is likely to have a good effect: gradually changing the culture so that physical abuse becomes less acceptable. So I don’t want to see the bad law overturned, and therefore I don’t want to vote No. But Jesus’ command to tell the truth (e.g. Matthew 5:37) means I ought not to vote Yes either.

10 responses to “Smacking referendum”

  1. danyill says:

    Well, I decided after some thought that the best way I could find to think about it was to take the view that it was a historically contextualized question on the assumption that we are not referring to a timeless standard of good parental correction.

    If it’s taken as a timeless standard then the question is tautological or rhetorical it seems (of *course* it should not be illegal if it’s what good parenting *actually is*, who would want that???).

    I assumed that “good parental correction” be referred what people *consider* good parental correction to be.

    I then take the (somewhat dubious?) step of saying that I think in New Zealand this appears to be either poorly understood in principle or just impossible in implementation in a way which results in children being abused in a way which appears to be worse than the rest of the world.

    So either we don’t know what good parental correction is or we’re unable to do it compared to other countries. I see no particular basis for the latter so I’ll run with the former.

    Then because we fail to know how to achieve good parental correction, we can’t easily administer physical force wisely. As a result based on what we *think* is good parental correction, smacking perhaps should be illegal.

    NOT because of the bill of human rights or rights of the child or any such thing but just because as a nation NZ is demonstrably failing to know and act in ways which demonstrate good parenting.

    (1) I think the question is kind of dumb.
    (2) I have no children.

  2. Ben Hoyt says:

    Seems to me it’s still fairly easy: “Should smacking be a criminal offense in NZ?” If it is a criminal offense, parents who smack in that non-abusive way you mention are still made crooks. So vote No.

    But why do you think the law is likely to change the culture so that physical abuse becomes less acceptable? I suspect it might well have the opposite effect. For example, so many people I’ve talked to reckon bad behaviour has gotten worse now that caning is not allowed in schools. Cause and effect? Probably not. But neither can I see how lack of the cane is having a “good effect”.

    Franci pointed out that another reason banning smacking is likely to have a bad effect is this: “ordinary Kiwi parents” who traditionally would have smacked for bad behaviour won’t any more, because of the law. But because humans are human, when the going gets tough and the kids are giving them a real headache, they’ll get angry and then slap or whack the kids (or perhaps worse, lash out with horrendous verbal abuse). We have witnessed this several times with certain neighbours, and it’s not pleasant. If smacking was legal, those parents might give a level-headed smack earlier instead of waiting till they blow their top and lash out in abuse.

    As a Hebrews 12-er I come from a different perspective than the “ordinary Kiwi parent”: physical discipline is not a last resort, it’s a good thing if administered properly and in the context of lots of love. (Oh dear. I said that on a public blog. :-)

    Anyway, my take on all this is that our Glorious Politicians need to read them some history. Humans have used the paddle for all of recorded history, say 10,000 years. Do our MPs really think it’s only in the last 10 years we’ve learnt the truth about smacking?

    Okay okay, so you got my bite. :-)

  3. Ben Hoyt says:

    About the referendum: contrary to Key and Bradford, the question is not ambiguous but is quite clear. However, I agree it’s not the best question, and it is somewhat loaded with the word “good” in there.

    danyill, I admit to not understanding the connection between NZ demonstrating bad parenting and making smacking illegal. What if smacking is not the cause of the problem?

    Anyway, my final though for tonight: politics is evil. :-)

  4. danyill says:

    Smacking doesn’t have to be the problem, but banning physical violence against children may be (ha!) a blunt instrument for resolving the issue.

    That may be the only/best/best-of-a-bad-bunch/hope-in-action option available to our government.

    Many/most problems cannot be fixed by governments and it is a common fallacy to expect governments to fix them. However it *is* the government’s responsibility to ensure justice for all, including particularly the oppressed, marginalized and those without a voice (which – surprise! – is where children seem to fit).

    When the government is aware of widespread injustice affecting a segment of the population, their mandate is to do “something” about it. Now I’m not saying the present law is the best or even a good option. But all the anti-smackers (and I know a few and I just keep drinking the wine to avoid getting angry) don’t seem very aware of the broader issues and aren’t offering up any substantial alternatives.

    I hope you can distinguish betwee (a) smacking, (b) discipline and (c) child abuse. (a) is only one possible way to achieve (b) but if traction can’t be gained on (c) because the law has to allow (a), then to stop (c), then there may be some (even if small) advantage in banning (a), even though it’s not obvious to me that this is necessary.

    Moving on…. I’m happy to maintain that the question is unclear and tantamount to tautological. I’d be interested in your face value reading of the question for the following three cases:

    So, the question is:

    “Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?”

    Here’s some options:

    Case A – You think smacking is part of good parenting. In this case the referendum question is a tautology or a rhetorical question. It’s like asking “Should good parenting be illegal?”.

    Case B – You think smacking is not part of good parenting but shouldn’t be illegal. In this case it’s difficult to know what to do with the question.

    Case C – You think smacking is not part of good parenting and should be illegal. In this case it’s difficult to know what to do with the question.

    I imagine I’m way off beam here as per usual… I could add a number of additional cases to this.

    But I think it’s unclear – and hey, miracles do happen, because for once me and John K agree!

  5. richie_f says:


    You shouldn’t vote ‘Yes’ because:

    (a) as you said, it would be lying; and

    (b) even if you are right that the new law would change attitudes over time, it’s an abuse to promote or defend laws solely for their normative effect and apart from their immediate, face-value legislative effect. I don’t think Jesus wants us to usher in the Kingdom by legislating from on high to manipulate attitudes.

    Although I agree the wording is poor and it is probably a waste of time and money.

  6. Matthew Bartlett says:

    Thanks team. I am still vacillating between ‘yes’ and abstaining.

    Regarding Richie’s (a) — while I don’t believe it’s wrong to smack in all cases, I may honestly believe it is tactically useful for reducing child abuse for smacking to be illegal.

    Re (b): I think the rule of law is important. (I may not be using that terminology correctly.) But more important than that is the protection of children from abuse (I am agnostic about the relation of that to the kingdom being ushered in). By analogy with anti-smoking laws, a good change in culture can come from a theoretically dubious law.

    I will probably abstain and pray that some other opportunity to protect kids from abuse comes my way. Voting is the very smallest beginnings of politics. Building welcoming/healing/inclusive/reconciling communities is more the thing.

  7. Kay says:

    While the referendum question seems complicated, for me the choice of “Vote Yes”, “Vote No”, or “Don’t Vote” is simpler if I look behind the question and the supporters of each option.

    Vote Yes supporters include child protection agencies and advocates and liberal religious leaders. They tend to talk about the rights of the child.

    Vote No supporters include restrictive religious leaders and conservative groups that have also opposed human rights extensions to other groups of people (like same sex couples who wanted civil unions or marriage). They tend to talk about the rights of the parent.

    Don’t Vote supporters include politicians and others who either see merits in both sides, or don’t want to be seen to support one group over the other.

    I am more likely to talk about the right of a child to grow up safely. As a mother, I sympathise with other parents about the challenges of child rearing but I believe that there is a greater need for children to get protection from police investigating complaints of assault or abuse, than for parents to get protection from investigation when no offence has occurred. Better child safe than police “sorry”.

    If I asked “should bashing a child be a criminal offence?” most people would say yes. The point at which a smacking turns into a hitting or a bashing can’t be decided by a referendum, and the police have the discretion not to prosecute if the hitting is light smacking.

    Or another way of looking at the intent of the question is to ask, do you want to keep the current law on parental discipline which lets the police prosecute excessive force and makes parents accountable for their actions? Vote Yes

    Or, do you want parents to be above the law in relation to acts against their own children without interference by the police or other government agency? Vote No (meaning no interference).

    I hear people say that there needs to be more support for parents in this area. That would be good, but I don’t think a law change to reverse S59 would achieve that.

  8. Will says:

    Bro, I had the exact same dilemma.
    I’m pretty much set on voting yes, for similar reasons to Kay.

  9. […] Gershoff, Elizabeth Thompson. 2008. Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus, OH: Centre for Effective Discipline. […]

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