Smacking and the reform of Section 59 was one of the big political issues of the last few years. Key’s position on facing down the appallingly worded “smacking referendum” remains one of the very few things that I can respect and applaud him on. Key walked a tightrope, keeping the reform in place, but assuring an apparently angry public that it was OK to give “light smacks”.
Key will not want to revisit this issue, but new evidence suggests that he should. I’m not talking about this poll:
Poll finds smacking making comeback
Smacking children may be creeping back into favour following Government assurances that police will not prosecute parents for “light smacks”, according to a new survey. The poll of 1000 people by Curia Market Research found that 44 per cent of parents of children under 12 admitted to smacking their children in the past year “to correct their behaviour when [they] believed it was reasonable and appropriate to do so”. Previous polls asking the same question found that self-confessed smackers dropped from 48 per cent of parents in 2008 to 39 per cent last March as publicity about the “anti-smacking” law rose to a crescendo.
The latest survey suggests either that smacking may have increased slightly again or that parents have become more willing to admit to it.
I suspect that the latter is the correct explanation – the poll measured people’s willingness to admit to smacking rather than any real changes in behaviour. No, much more significant for the debate is the publication of the first large scale well controlled study on the effects of smacking:
Study: Spanking Kids Leads to More Aggressive Behavior
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not endorse spanking for any reason, citing its lack of long-term effectiveness as a behavior-changing tactic. … Now researchers at Tulane University provide the strongest evidence yet against the use of spanking: of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were more likely to be aggressive by age 5. The research supports earlier work on the pitfalls of corporal punishment, including a study by Duke University researchers that revealed that infants who were spanked at 12 months scored lower on cognitive tests at age 3. …
Led by Catherine Taylor, the Tulane study was the first to control simultaneously for variables that are most likely to confound the association between spanking and later aggressive behavior. The researchers accounted for factors such as acts of neglect by the mother, violence or aggression between the parents, maternal stress and depression, the mother’s use of alcohol and drugs, and even whether the mother considered abortion while pregnant with the child. Each of these factors contributed to children’s aggressive behavior at age 5, but they could not explain all of the violent tendencies at that age. Further, the positive connection between spanking and aggression remained strong, even after these factors had been accounted for.
“The odds of a child being more aggressive at age 5 if he had been spanked more than twice in the month before the study began increased by 50%,” says Taylor. And because her group also accounted for varying levels of natural aggression in children, the researchers are confident that “it’s not just that children who are more aggressive are more likely to be spanked.”
What the study, published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, shows is that outside of the most obvious factors that may influence violent behavior in children, spanking remains a strong predictor. “This study controls for the most common risk factors that people tend to think of as being associated with aggression,” says Singer. “This adds more credence, more data and more strength to the argument against using corporal punishment.” …
The reason for that, says Singer, may be that spanking instills fear rather than understanding. Even if a child were to stop his screaming tantrum when spanked, that doesn’t mean he understands why he shouldn’t be acting out in the first place. What’s more, spanking models aggressive behavior as a solution to problems. …
Spanking may stop a child from misbehaving in the short term, but it becomes less and less effective with repeated use, according to the AAP; it also makes discipline more difficult as the child gets older and outgrows spanking. As the latest study shows, investing the time early on to teach a child why his behavior is wrong may translate to a more self-aware and in-control youngster in the long run.
Corporal punishment breeds a cycle of violence. Abuse is an intergenerational problem. The reform of Section 59 and the debate that followed was a first, crucial step towards shifting public opinion on these issues. But it was only a start, and NZ is still a country with appalling childhood abuse statistics. It’s time for another step. A public education campaign based on the results and conclusions of the Tulane study would be a good place to start. The problem isn’t going to fix itself…