Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Banning Smacking

Background: New Zealand law currently accommodates smacking by allowing the use of "reasonable force" in disciplining a child to count as a legal defence against charges of assault. Occasionally, juries have acquitted serious child abusers on this basis. Green MP Sue Bradford has responded by proposing a bill that will remove this legal defence, thus effectively outlawing smacking. It's popular among politicians, but less so among the general public.

My analysis: Frankly, I'm amazed there's any controversy here at all. Given that no-one really wants to prosecute all parents for smacking, outlawing it just seems like an obviously bad idea, for two reasons. (1) It's patently unjust to remove a legitimate defence merely because the occasional "false positive" lets guilty people go free. Surely, if a defendent's use of force really is reasonable, then it's not abuse or assault. Justice demands that our legal system recognize this. (2) As a general principle, it's always a bad idea to have unenforced (or inconsistently enforced) laws. (It's asking for trouble to grant such discretionary powers to the police. Much better to leave them with jurors.)

National MPs have proposed instead to clarify what is meant by "reasonable force", rather than disallowing it altogether. This would solve the stated problem of child abuse acquittals, without creating any new problems. Yet Bradford et al oppose any such amendment, which suggests that they're being dishonest -- the "stated problem" isn't really what they're concerned about after all. Rather, they want to send a message that any form of physical discipline is unacceptable.

No Right Turn exemplifies this position with his blind insistence that "hitting people is assault." As if there were no relevant difference between a light smack and beating someone bloody. Such a failure of discrimination is, as PC puts it, "just insane." There are important distinctions to be made here. That's not to say that smacking is necessarily okay, but it is to say that no moral insight is to be found from those who think that the issue may be settled by simple-mindedly asserting that "hitting people is assault."

[Aside: I normally have a lot of respect for NRT, but that last post was a real disappointment. He blithely slanders opponents of the smacking ban as being in cahoots with "fundamentalist Christians", and characterizes them as "want[ing] bad parents to be able to continue to assault their children." That sort of bullshit is precisely what's wrong with political debate in our society.]

Now, I think we need to distinguish two issues:
(1) Is smacking (generally) bad parenting?
(2) Should smacking be illegal?

Personally, I think that smacking is rarely the best option. But that's just my tentative opinion. It's not obvious how to be a good parent -- and I doubt there's any one template that's universally applicable -- so I think we should give plenty of leeway for different parenting styles, including ones that involve some light physical discipline.

(Aside: I find it strange how some proponents get so fixated on the awfulness of physical pain, when psychological pain can be far worse - and more enduring - than a light smack that's forgotten a moment later. Emotional abuse thus strikes me as a far more serious concern!)

Is there any evidence that light smacking has harmful consequences (e.g. raising the likelihood that children will act violently later in life)? If so, perhaps it would be appropriate to attach some social stigma to it, publicly criticize the practice, and suggest better alternatives, etc. (Much as we might for other instances of tolerably bad parenting, e.g. swearing in front of kids.) But that still wouldn't justify criminalizing it.

Given the social controversy over what constitutes good parenting, it seems entirely inappropriate for the state to be mandating any particular answer. Of course there are limits, as all reasonable people agree: we shouldn't tolerate serious abuse, or other gross harms. But smacking is plainly not in the same league. It's a trivial harm, if it's any harm at all. Bradford's proposal is like passing a law mandating what parents must tell their kids about Santa Claus ("Santa is a lie, and lying is wrong, end of story", blah). It's totally inappropriate, even if they happen to be right about what "the perfect parent" would do. It just isn't their place to say.

In a liberal democracy, the government shouldn't try to micromanage people's lives. It certainly has no business foreclosing public debate over such a contentious cultural issue, mandating one particular parenting style over another. For issues where reasonable people may disagree, the appropriate response for a liberal state is to uphold autonomy and pluralism. Let parents decide for themselves how best to raise their own children. I expect they'll do a better job than the government would.


  1. Well said. Agree 100%.

    I think NRT's post is an example of the way many people behave when they've lost the debate but refuse to concede.

    However I do give NRT credit for being honest about wanting to criminalize even light smacking, unlike the Greens whose actions and words are still inconsistent.

    I would add that, although we don't hit other adults, we do fine them or imprison them. If those options were not available (for example on a desert island) even quite severe corporal punishment might be correct.

    Saying that we prohibit hitting any adults of adults, therefore we should prohibit any hitting of children, is a false analogy.

  2. On your aside:

    What about the possibility that threatening physical pain is a form of psychological torture? I grew up in a country where caning children is a common practice, and the experience being forced to stand still (or, as is common in that culture, to kneel down in front of the authority figures in a position of explicit submission) while someone hits you is terrifying primarily because one is in a position of complete helplessness. The worst parts of corporeal punishment for me were the interminable pauses before the actual blows fell and the feeling of helplessness, not the physical pain.

  3. I would appreciate your comparison with the use of speed limits, which have criminal sanctions at the high end *and* are widely disregarded. I'm not sure how your position holds together in light of that plus the domestic violence problem (where it's ok to hit your partner as long as you're an all black).

  4. Moz, I'd simply suggest that speed limits ought not to be widely disregarded. (And of course we should all deny your parenthetical claim.)

    Ponder - that does sound pretty awful.

  5. Nigel - yes, it does puzzle me how some proponents of the bill neglect the obvious (morally relevant) differences between adults and children. We generally prohibit hitting as a violation of bodily autonomy, but children cannot be fully autonomous of their parents. There are obviously all sorts of things that good parents may do to their children that they couldn't do to other adults -- send them to their room, insist that they eat their vegetables, decide who they may associate with, etc.

    This is a reflection of the special nature of the parent-child relationship, not an indication that children are somehow "second-class citizens" (as I've heard some advocates suggest).

  6. Part of the problem seems to be that there is almost zero relevant, reliable empirical data regarding smacking. What concerns me is that most smacking appears to me to be the result of frustration or anger on the parents part rather than a considered response aimed at producing self-discipline in a child.

    I also agree with what ponder said about helplessness: I can think of few more psychologically distressing situations than being completely helpless, while being hit with the intention of causing pain (otherwise why do it?) by someone who is supposed to have your best interests at heart. I can't see how this is supposed to be beneficial to the parent-child relationship. To me it screams of parents who haven't done enough research on raising children.

    The fact that its possible to deal with just about any disciplinary problem in ways that a) result in positive long term outcomes for the children, and b) don't involve hitting them, just seems to point to smacking being a bad idea. To anyone that disputes this, I point to the watertight philosophical argument that is TV shows like "Supernanny". :)

  7. Parents have a number of additional obligations to their kids - they also need a corresponding additional tools to ensure they can achieve that - tools other people should not have.

    Smacking may or may not be one of those tools of course. Similarly kids have a number of extra defenses (for example a young child could kill a person and not expect prison) and thus a corresponding extra tools might be required in exchange for those that have been removed.


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