Sparing the rod
Two weeks ago, the annual Diocesan Synod of the Anglican /Diocese of Otago and Southland passed a resolution expressing its wish to see the law that permits parents to administer corporal punishment to their children amended to outlaw such a means of discipline.
The immediate concerns of the members of the synod were the recent cases of severe physical abuse of children, most noticeably Lillybing, the Masterton 2-year-old who died as a consequence of her injuries. There have been other cases which have not led to death but which have caused injury, such as the case in which a piece of 4-by-2 timber was used to beat a child, and this beating caused injury but this violence was exonerated by the courts. The law is ambiguous. It says "reasonable force" can be used. It would seem quite a lot of damage can be done by reasonable force.
Corporal punishment is a surprisingly hot issue. There are a number of people who are very worried about the views the synod confirmed. When I tease the issues out with them, they often point to the most socially dislocated teenage behaviours such as underage drinking and driving, and drug use, shop-lifting and so on. These are behaviours parents clearly have difficulty controlling. The argument seems to run that if we let up on corporal punishment, these behaviours will become only more wild and out of hand.
But will they? Or will corporal punishment just make it worse by suggesting to young people that what they want they can have, whether by force or sheer insistence with no call to respect the well-being of others? Moreover, these are adolescent problems involving young people who are just about as big as their parents are.
When I talk with people who are concerned about any suggestion that corporal punishment should be made illegal, it turns out they are really talking about how parents might discipline their young children, people who are much smaller than they are, in the expectation that they will not need such discipline when they become adolescents. I think this is quite unrealistic.
And yes, they are reasonable, thinking, loving parents and they are not talking about beating with a stick or a cane or whatever, but a smack: a "quick, sharp shock" is the phrase frequently used. This seems to suggest that a smack is a way of communicating with a young person who is misbehaving.
Furthermore, and this is where it gets really difficult and feelings run very high, there are very few adults who have never smacked their children, and most have at least residual feelings of guilt, which become drowned in self-justification. And there is anxiety, genuine anxiety, that such a law would make almost every parent into a criminal, albeit one who is not found out.
And little children can be utterly exasperating, and the temptation to administer a quick fix, a quick smack, can be very strong. But is this really the best way to teach the next generation communication skills? I doubt it.
The concern of the members of our synod centred around the rising levels of violence in our society and on the generally accepted understanding that we do not want our children, any children, to learn that they can get their way through violence, let alone violence to those smaller and weaker than themselves. This is the way of the bully. Such learning is not healthy, and is not easily unlearned in adult life.
Unfortunately, support for corporal punishment has been found in parts of the Christian tradition with the quotation of such passages as Proverbs 13:24, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him . . ." Much cruel and violent behaviour towards children has been justified by these words.
It is very dangerous to take selective biblical passages and build an entire ethic on them, especially when they are not words from the Christian era. Jesus said "Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." His entire ethic was one of care and respect and love for those who are vulnerable. And small children are very vulnerable.
I find in my listening around that most people agree with this but they are worried because the ethic of no corporal punishment seems impossibly idealistic. But is it? Perhaps a good clear directive that the mistreatment of children, for any reason, is not acceptable in our society is the initial impulse to transformation, a way of breaking the cycle of violence that is so endemic among us.
Parenting is not easy, and parents need strong support. Children are not cute and lovable all the time, and caring for them is hard work. They need clarity of values, strong boundaries and clear direction if they are to develop into resilient and loving adults with a passion for the well-being of others. It is love, tough love, that is the way.