In a judgement that is sure to be described as a “test case” for the anti-smacking legislation, Jimmy Mason was found guilty today of assaulting his son. It is not even remotely a test case for the new legislation. Mason apparently punched his four-year-old son in his face. You would be hard pressed to find twelve people in New Zealand who would consider that reasonable discipline, even if section 59 was still in full swing.
In terms of court appearances and defense arguments, the repeal of section 59 has made no apparent difference. In terms of parents using smacking as a form of discipline, it has made a huge and very dangerous difference – it has introduced fear, uncertainty and doubt. A recent survey has shown that two thirds of parents think that all smacking is illegal or do not know whether it is or not. Coupled with the occasional horror story of a parent suddenly finding themselves surrounded by police after giving their children a light tap, this means that most parents view smacking with some trepidation (exactly the effect that Bradford wanted). Unfortunately, other methods of discipline require considerably more patience and skill to administer. Most parents are likely to substitute smacking for no discipline at all. Frankly this is far worse for them than the inappropriate punch of Jimmy Mason.
Currently, National seem to be perfectly happy to let this matter trundle along unattended to, on the grounds that they are not seeing large numbers of convictions under the new law. This is a dangerous illusion. The damage is being done to thousands of toddlers as I type. Already I see in my consulting rooms a sudden explosion in the number of poorly disciplined toddlers accompanied by frazzled parents whose ineffective attempts at control are routinely ignored by their children. These parents are clearly clueless about discipline.
Smacking is not a good form of discipline. But it is easy to do and requires a limited skill-set. I would be most happy to see parenting skills being taught to young parents, enabling them to develop some real skill in non-physical alternative discipline. But, in the meantime, removing the only effective form of discipline in their repertoire is a recipe for disaster. Section 59 should be reinstated immediately (preferably with some definition of reasonable force to ensure that people like Jimmy Mason do not “get away with it”)