By The Joint Methodist-Presbyterian Public Questions Committee, New Zealand, July 1994

This paper, which looks at corporal punishment (smacking, hitting etc) as a way of disciplining children, has been prepared as part of the PQ Committee's response to the International Year of the Family. It can be looked at by a small group, or worked through on your own.


In 1986 General Assembly and Conference of our two Churches supported the abolition of corporal punishment in New Zealand schools.

The views of some of our own Church schools had been helpful. 'At no time has corporal punishment been used in the discipline of the school. We believe that it does nothing for self-esteem, that it should not be necessary in a school with a 'good climate' (Rangi Ruru). In 1985 John McGlashan College had a term s trial without corporal punishment in school or boarding houses. This was only a minor shift from current policy and at the end of the trial we have just continued without using corporal punishment. It has died peacefully and memories are only occasionally stirred'.

It was not until 1990, in the face of considerable opposition from teachers, administrators and parents, that the Education Act was amended to prohibit corporal punishment in all schools.

However, at the end of 1992, attempts to re-introduce this form of discipline (by a Private Member's Bill) met with almost universal condemnation. The only groups which supported the Bill were conservative Christian School Principals and the Christian Heritage Party who said that the issue was 'one of parental choice', and that 'discipline in the schools had to be an extension of discipline in the homes'.

Many school principals spoke out against reintroduction, with such statements as 'wrong, antiquated and negative', 'days of corporal punishment had long gone' and 'corporal punishment was a thing of the past'. PQ spoke with Laures Park Principal at Newtown Primary School (serving an inner-city, ethnically diverse and predominantly lower socio-economic community) who said: 'Teachers have learned to support positive rather than dwell on negative aspects of children's behaviour. If there are behaviours that are causing concern, then we look at giving the children the skills to cope, eg through anger management courses'.

In two short years we had learnt to manage Without hitting our children at school. If we can learn to do without hitting our children at school, can we learn to do without hitting them at home?

Until recently husbands were allowed by law to physically chastise their wives. What do you think about this? The law does not allow adults to hit other adults. Should children have the same protection?

You may wish to begin by considering:

  • Were you physically punished as a child?
  • At home?
  • At school?
  • How did you feel about it?

What do children think?

In 1986 when the issue of corporal punishment in schools was being considered, the Public Questions Committee was impressed by the parish which asked their Youth Group to comment. So we approached several of our children and young people for their views.

The children we spoke with were simply children we knew well. They do not represent any particular group and certainly cannot be considered to speak for all children. They were powerful advocates for banning physical punishment. Without exception, and even where they had been smacked themselves, they were opposed to hitting.

However, Amy (aged 12) felt that 'after fair warning a smack might be useful to stop a small child (up to about age 7) especially if it is something dangerous.' They were nonetheless very clear that it is the role of parents and educators to provide discipline and clear guidelines for them.

Epsom Youth Group on corporal punishment in schools (1986) Considered detentions far more effective than caning and that corporal punishment led to fear of school and 'didn't last'.

The children we talked with said that smacking is not a good form of discipline because:

  • 'I don't think its fair that a man or woman should beat a child because they should be setting a better example. They should explain to them. not hurt them.' (Andrew, aged 9)
  • 'It teaches children to hit. If no adults hit children, then children wouldn't hit either so there would be less violence.' (Sophie, 8)
  • 'I think there are better ways to discipline. Parents should talk to the children and make sure they know what they did wrong and why.' (Tammy, aged l1)
In response to the question 'How do you think you would feel if you were smacked? / How did you feel when you were smacked?
  • 'Humiliated, angry and determined to smack back. Felt the person was a bad example.'
  • 'Confused, didn't realise what I was smacked for. Angry, because it hurts.'
  • 'Would feel a bit angry and ashamed and humiliated and embarrassed. It would make me want to lash out or cry.'
  • 'Very sore, and the person who did it to me - I would be scared and afraid of them. I'd even be too scared to be angry. I'd be scared to tell anyone.'
Since they were anti-smacking, WB asked them 'How do you discipline children? The suggestions were:
  • 'Talk to them, point out what they've done wrong, explain (consequences) to them (if they've ripped a book they won't be able to read it).
  • 'Set good examples for them.' 'Listen to the child's point of view and discuss the problem.'
  • 'Work on the problem together/negotiate.'
  • 'Use tick charts with a reward at the end to encourage good behaviour'.
  • 'Hold onto them' (for a small child who is hitting another child or acting dangerously) *'Time-out in the bathroom'.
  • 'Take away TV time'.
Most of all. the children wanted things explained to them.

We enjoyed discussing this issue with our children. We strongly recommend that you talk with your own children (Youthgroup etc).

What does the Bible say?

The Christian school principals and others who supported the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools quoted biblical texts in support of their stand.

Hebrews 12: 5-9 shows that the parent's relationship with the child should be modelled after God's relationship with us.

Proverbs 13:24 'Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them'.

Proverbs 22:15 'Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far away.'

These and other verses are seen by some parents, to give the right to use physical punishment on their children. Some Christians consider that physical punishment can be 'a loving, teaching event'. What do you think?

'It is more than a little ironic that the most passionate defenders of physical punishment from a religious quarter are Christian fundamentalist groups . Christ himself engaged in only one violent activity that we know of, namely driving the money-lenders from the temple, and specifically called upon the Jews of his day to reject the notion of a punitive God and embrace a doctrine of peace, love and good will (Violence in New Zealand, Jane & James Ritchie)

What do you think about this statement ? How well does physical punishment of our children fit with our basic Christian principles of 'love one another' and 'do unto others as you would have them do unto you'? What about:

Ephesians 6:4 Parents 'do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord'.

Colossians 3:21 Parents 'do not provoke your children, or they may lose heart'.

Where should the church be on this issue?

Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them. (Prov.13:24)
We have mostly understood this verse to mean that if you don't smack your child from time to time they will grow up 'spoilt', unmanageable and badly behaved. However, there is another interpretation of the 'spare the rod' saying which brings us right to the heart of the matter. Some Biblical scholars say that shepherds in earlier times had two tools - a staff and a rod. The rod was not used for hitting; it was used gently - to guide the sheep in the desired direction. Children need to be guided. If an adult overindulges a child without providing guidance then the child will certainly be 'spoilt'

Many of us have grown up believing that 'smacking never did us any harm'. (You may wish to look back over the children's comments here and to revisit your own feelings when you were physically punished). However, it is now accepted that smacking may stop the behaviour, but it does not help the child know better ways to behave.

Train children in the right way and when old they will not stray' (Proverbs 22:6) The word 'discipline' has the same root as the word 'disciple' meaning pupil or learner. It implies teaching or training 'especially of the kind that produces self-control, orderliness, obedience and capacity for co-operation' (Dictionary). Discipline is the atmosphere of mutual respect, maintained in a family or school setting, and involving the total relationships of the people concerned.

As Christian parents we accept that it is our privilege to take responsibility for teaching, disciplining and guiding our children towards responsible adulthood, and to behave right now in (age appropriate) ways that are socially acceptable. While the short - term goal is to guide behaviour on a daily basis and to protect children from hurting themselves and others, in the long run discipline should help children become self-disciplined and take over responsibility for their own behaviour.

Many books have been written on child development and parenting skills. Those of us who have experienced good childhoods ourselves have a head start when it comes to parenting our own children. However, in New Zealand we still seem to believe that parenting skills are somehow genetically acquired.

How did you learn to be a parent?

Can you see differences in the way you parent and the way in which your parents raised you?

What about your grandparents?

A great deal of what children learn will be taught by example. Much of their behaviour is copied from family, friends, neighbours, television, etc. Values such as co-operation, kindness and sharing with others are learned in this way. But it is often necessary to teach children what is expected of them.

'If we live by the truth and in love, we will grow in all ways into Christ...' (Ephesians4:15-16) If we believe that we should be working together to build up the Body of Christ in our family we will look for a style of parenting which is not authoritarian or permissive, but is based on a mutual development of trust. Children thrive in an atmosphere of genuine love and reasonable, consistent instruction.

How does smacking help this teaching?

How do we discipline our children when they are too old to be smacked?

What are some ways of disciplining which work for you and your children?

You might like to compare some of the children's suggestions with the ways of disciplining you have found effective.

Penelope Leach, a leading British parent educator, states that after reviewing all the research that has been carried out on the physical punishment of children, she has concluded that not only was physical punishment morally wrong, but it didn't work. Being hurt and humiliated did not motivate children to behave better. Because it didn't work, parents tended to resort to ever greater levels of violence.

Smacking is a negative form of instruction. Humiliation, victimisation and exclusion are other negative ways of disciplining children. One of the most effective ways of disciplining children is by rewarding 'good' behaviour and ignoring 'bad' (positive reinforcement). If we praise our child when he/she is behaving in a way we consider acceptable, we increase the frequency of that behaviour. This raises the self esteem of the child, enables the child to reach out and enjoy life's opportunities, and promotes a sense of well-being between the child and parents.

Some good ideas for becoming 'non-hitting' parents, are found in pamphlets (enclosed) published by the Commissioner for Children's Office.

What happens in other countries?

Governments which have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child ( New Zealand ratified 1993) are obliged to protect children from 'all forms of physical or mental violence'. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child Judges physical punishment of children to be a violation of the Convention.

In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to ban all physical punishment of children, followed by Finland (1983), Denmark (1985), Norway (1987) and Austria (1989). These laws place children on the same footing as other citizens (it is illegal to hit, strike or assault any adult).

In Sweden, the law created a change of attitude where the smacking of children became socially unacceptable. It was done very gently and part of the anti-smacking reform was to print anti-smacking slogans on milk cartons so that parents and children could see and talk about the idea at meal-times. After 10 years the whole climate of child-rearing in Sweden has changed. When parents do not smack, they seem to become more involved with their children.

What about New Zealand? There has been a recent realisation in New Zealand that we have a problem with violence and there is a growing determination to do something about it.

Is New Zealand now ready for such a law? People in those Northern European countries feared that the change in the law would make children unmanageable and that it would be widely ignored. These fears proved to be unfounded. There has been, instead, a change in public opinion. The law acted as an incentive to find new and better ways of disciplining children, just as repeal of corporal punishment has already done in schools in New Zealand.

The big question -smacking and violence.

Delcelia Witika and Craig Manakau are names that are well-known to New Zealanders. Victims of parental abuse, their stones and others, have shocked and outraged us. We have been similarly appalled to learn from the UNICEF 1994 Progress of Nations report that New Zealand is placed sixth highest amongst the 23 industrialised countries on the child neglect and abuse death rate index, with 6.9 infant deaths from presumed abuse per 100,000 live births.

The change in the Swedish law came about because a major research project showed that stopping all physical punishment was the gateway to preventing child abuse. Jane Ritchie, (leading child psychologist who has studied child rearing practices) says that 90 percent of what are regarded as child abuse cases in New Zealand are committed by parents who simply went too far (NZ Listener, Nov 1993).

But what about the parents who 'hit safely'? You have to ask all parents to stop. 'It's like fencing swimming pools for the sake of children's safety - all must do it to save some' (Jane Ritchie, NZ Listener).

Physical punishment teaches children that violence is an acceptable way to resolve conflict and that its OK for bigger people to hit little people. As Sophie said (refer Section on What do children think) 'It teaches children to hit. If adults didn't hit, then children wouldn't hit either so there'd be less violence'. It is now widely accepted that physical punishment is more likely to produce aggressive hostile children.

'If we are to stop violence, New Zealanders must change their attitudes' says Miriam Saphira who wants to prevent the younger generation growing up violent and abusive. Her book Stopping Child Abuse outlines a 'caring campaign' to stop child abuse. She would like all parents and children educated about child development and taught how to resolve conflict peacefully and how to build self esteem.

Some positive things are already happening. The Police have developed a programme to prevent bullying in schools. Early childhood centres are teaching parenting skills and there are several programmes which teach children to behave in a positive and peaceful way. The Cool Schools programme is a mediation training programme that has been especially developed for Primary Schools and teaches children how to respond to conflicts in non-violent and constructive ways.

As parents and as Christians we need to be part of this movement to make New Zealand a safe place for our children. Are we prepared to not only 'talk' non-violence but 'do' non-violence and model the love of God to our children by never abusing them physically or otherwise?

The last word belongs to Jane Ritchie, who with James Ritchie has worked for so many years to reduce violence at all levels in our society:

'I don't think it is hypocritical to tell our daughters and our sons that we hit them as children. We didn't know any better, then. But now we do.'

Where do we go from here?

You may like to do some or all of the following:

  • discuss this issue with people you know;
  • take part in the 'smack-free' week scheduled from 26 September;
  • make a family commitment to becoming a 'no-hitting place';
  • buy a book on parenting for your church library;
  • write to your local MP and the Minister of Justice advocating the abolition of Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961, so that children have the same right as other people not to be hit;
  • contact the Office of the Commissioner for Children, PO Box 12537, WGTN or the PQ Research Officer, P O Box 6469, WGTN for further resources and information.
Physical punishment is often not about teaching children, but about adult revenge. 'We get a lot of hurt from our children - there's a lot of pain in parenthood - and when people are hurt, they feel like hitting back' (Kate Birch, psychologist and creator of the P5 Parenting Programme).

Thanks to the children who helped us with our 'survey' to Amy Wilson (12 yrs) for her help with illustrations, the Commissioner for Children's Office, and to the APW (Association of Presbyterian Women).



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