The case of the Ringwood mother who was found guilty of assault has again opened up the debate about spanking in particular and corporal punishment in general. Should spanking be made illegal? Many Scandinavian countries have already outlawed corporal punishment. In Australia some children’s rights activists think we should as well. Moira Rayner, for example, the convener of the Coalition for Children’s Rights, has said that spanking should be made illegal. At least one Herald-Sun commentator has made similar remarks recently.
The mother in question was alleged to have used a 75cm rosewood stick for meting out punishment. Obviously some forms of discipline are excessive, and the state has a role to play in ensuring that such punishment is minimised. Whether the Ringwood mother was being excessive I cannot comment on, not being privy to all the details of the case. But I can say that a more responsible role for governments to play is to stop undermining the role and functions of the family. Family authority is undermined by the government in a number of ways, including by putting pressure on mothers to enter the paid work force when they’d rather be at home attending to their children.
A government that actively encourages and supports the family is more likely to reduce the amount of domestic violence than the government that seeks to usurp the role of parents. Sweden is a case in point.
In Sweden all forms of corporal punishment were banned in 1979. Sweden happens to have experienced a greater decline of the family than anywhere else in the world. Marriage rates there have plummeted while illegitimacy has soared. Now other factors must be taken into account, including the government’s decision to deliberately discourage mothers from staying at home with young children. But one has to wonder whether there is some connection between the two. So too, one has to wonder how much discipline the 10 and 11 year old killers of little James Bulger received.
Now all punishment, whether corporal or not, must be proportionate to the crime or wrong committed. We already have laws outlawing physical abuse. But to call most forms of spanking parental “violence” is to both distort the meaning of the term and to undermine the collected wisdom of cultures and generations that said “spare the rod, spoil the child”. Just as one can lovingly administer a slap on the bottom, so one can unlovingly refuse to discipline a child. A question of balance, as usual, is the key. A child that receives a spanking, when necessary, in the environment of a warm and loving relationship with its parents is the better for it. A child that receives no discipline – whether in the form of spankings or some other fashion – will certainly be the worse off. The sociological evidence for such a commonsensical viewpoint is overwhelming.
The absence of fathers in a child’s life is a major factor in all of this. Not only are kids from mother-only households more likely to grow up less disciplined, but they have greater chances of engaging in criminal behaviour, alcohol and drug abuse, and poor educational performance. Many single mums courageously overcome these odds, and produce well-balanced children. They deserve all our support. But the sheer weight of the evidence makes it clear that a child enters life at a disadvantage when a father is absent.
Government policies which discourage illegitimacy, and encourage mothers to stay at home with young children if they so desire would be the best means to ensure that the chances of excessive punishment is reduced.
Would making spanking illegal really be of any help? Former Federal Minister for Justice, Senator Tate, described such a proposal as “silly” and “nonsense.” In addition to turning hundreds of thousands of parents into petty criminals overnight, such legislation, if enacted, would further undermine parental authority. Giving parents the respect and support they need would be a far wiser course.