In the minds of many, there are no more scarier words than these: “Hi, we’re from the government and we’re here to help you”. Patronising government bureaucrats can certainly come up with some nightmarish scenarios. When governments become convinced they need to micromanage parenting, for example, they end up subsuming the role of parents – usually a recipe for disaster. The truth is, parents are the best placed to know how to parent their children, not faceless government bureaucrats.
A good example of this nanny state mentality was revealed last week: $2.5 million of our tax dollars were spent on a campaign aimed at making parents feel guilty about smacking their children.
The “Every Child is Important” campaign has been developed by the Australian Childhood Foundation and is supported by the Australian Government. It has produced a booklet and website to encourage parents to give up smacking. Of course the ACF had been a long-time advocate of making smacking illegal. So it is an advocacy group with noble motives – to reduce child abuse – but with misguided aims – to make smacking illegal.
While such campaigns are meant to lessen child abuse – a legitimate concern – they end up working against parental authority: the ability of parents to control and discipline their own children. This is because these campaigns effectively equate corporal punishment with abuse, or at least imply that smacking is counterproductive and leads to child abuse.
While we should all be concerned about child abuse, we should also be concerned about those who are unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between child abuse and physical discipline. We already have laws on the books against assault, abuse, and so on. But smacking is not abuse.
Most parents know this difference. They know that a smack done in love, as a last resort, is often the most loving thing they can do. It is part of parental control. The anti-smackers usually say reasoning and discussion is much better than smacking. Do these experts actually have any kids of their own? Many don’t, I suspect.
The truth is, while you can reason with a teenager, or ban a 10-year-old from the Playstation, you cannot reason with a toddler. If they are about to touch an open flame or run on to a busy street, a logical discussion of the issue is not the way to go. A quick smack of the wrist or backside may be just the thing needed to prevent harm, danger, or in other cases, disrespect and rebellion.
Of course the great majority of parents know all this. But if the anti-smackers have their way, they will effectively undermine the rights of parents to set boundaries, to control their children, and to administer discipline.
I repeat, child abuse is always wrong. But smacks done in moderation and in love are not types of violence or abuse. And it is worth looking at the evidence of what bans on smacking actually achieve.
Invariably when the anti-smackers come out with their agenda, the nation of Sweden is brought up. This is because Sweden was the first nation to ban smacking, back in 1979. Part of the reason for the ban was that it was hoped that it would reduce child abuse.
OK, so what does the evidence tell us? What can we learn from the Swedish experiment? In 1996 an important study into child abuse in Sweden was published. It found, among other things, that Swedish data indicated a 489% increase in one child abuse statistic from 1981 through 1994, as well as a 672% increase in assaults by minors against minors.
The study concluded with these words: “We need better research to understand the complexities involved in parental discipline, including its relationship to child abuse. We need to discriminate effective from counterproductive forms of discipline responses, including the role of different forms of corporal punishment in increasing or decreasing the risk of child abuse. We also need better evaluations of policies designed to change parental discipline, given that the effects of the Swedish anti-spanking law seem to have had exactly the opposite effect of its intention, at least in the short term.”
A 2005 study came to similar conclusions. It finished with these words: “there is no objective evidence that the overall situation has improved for children in countries that have adopted smacking bans”.
Much more evidence of this kind can be produced. The truth is, most parents love their children and do right by their children. They are not violent nor abusive, and they know that smacks have a place in parental control and discipline.
The next time the Government wants to spend our tax dollars on programs to deter child abuse, they should do so more wisely. For example, they should be targeting the at-risk groups. The evidence is quite clear, for example, that child abuse is much more likely to take place in broken homes, and in non-biological two-parent family homes. Thus step-parents, live-ins, de factos and boyfriends, for example, are much more likely to commit child abuse than a biological mother or father.
And substance abuse – be it alcohol or illicit drug use – is also a leading factor in child abuse. If we want to get serious about child abuse, we should be targeting those situations which are most likely to produce abuse, instead of seeking to make the majority of parents feel guilty for using smacking as part of parental control and discipline.
As I said in two TV interviews, one radio interview, and one newspaper interview about this issue last week, if we criminalise smacking, we will simply manage to turn millions of parents into criminals over night. This is the nanny state going overboard. And it is something we just do not need.