Reader’s of this blog will know that I consider John Key to have substantially more ability and depth to him than is portrayed by Labour, the left-wing blogs or in the media. However, least you think I am a John Key Fan-boy, I vehemently disagree with him on his attitude to the anti-smacking referendum. In particular, I think this statement shows not only a dangerous arrogance, but a lack of understanding of the dynamics involved in parenting:
““I think it’s important that governments listen to the public, but the test I’ve had is that if I don’t think the law is working I will change it,” he said. “To date I have not seen any evidence that it is not working.””
If it is important for governments to listen to the public, John, why exactly is it that you have already dismissed the outcome of the referendum? The least the public should expect from a government is to take the result seriously. I do agree with Key that the referendum question is ambiguous and should have been a much clearer one, perhaps calling for a reinstatement of section 59 pending a proper public consultation. But that is beside the point here. A large “No” vote would still indicate that this issue has considerably more traction than is currently estimated. I suspect this will be the case. Just because an issue is not being heavily debated in the media or blogosphere, does not mean that it is not a matter of consequence to the public. And I agree with Bob McCoskrie that the underlying problem with the law is confusion.
The mistake Key is making is that he is thinking purely in terms of legal outcomes here. There are not large numbers of parents being arrested for clouting their kids. Kids are not being dragged off to CYFS because of a light smack. Masses of police resources are not being wasted following up on smacking “leads”. On the legal front, not a lot has changed.
The problem is, as I have blogged before, that the effects of the repeal of section 59 are actually being felt in family dynamics, not in law enforcement. There is considerable fear, uncertainty and doubt about the new law and what is really acceptable. Listening to someone like Bradford, one would assume that a smack on the bottom is the equivalent of true child abuse , on the scale of Nia Glassie. The net result of this uncertainty is a reduction in the use of smacking – a result that the advocates of the repeal applaud. Unfortunately, the unintended consequence of this is that some parents will lack the skill-set to use some other form of discipline, resulting in the use of no discipline at all.
Thus the true consequences of the repeal of section 59 will not be seen in 2 years, but in 15 years time when undisciplined children become undisciplined youth. But you can already see some of the consequences already. Noticed an increase in very unruly children recently? It is very noticeable in my consulting rooms. There have always been inquisitive kids and some downright hyperactive ones, but there is now an obvious flurry of toddlers who wander round the consulting room utterly unsupervised, barring an occasional protest from the parent. My observation is purely anecdotal, of course, but I am willing to bet that doctors reading this blog know what I am talking about. I am also willing to bet that other readers have noticed an increase in badly behaved children in public places.
Let me be clear. I do not think that smacking is a particularly effective form of discipline. I do not subscribe to the idea that “spare the rod and spoil the child” means “beating your kids is your duty as a parent” (the rod in that passage is a rod of authority, not a weapon). But I think other forms of (non-violent) discipline require considerably more skill as a parent than smacking. It seems to me that a more measured way of reducing smacking in our society is to assist parents by improving their skills in other disciplinary forms, rather than removing the only form of discipline to which they have access.
Key enjoys enormous personal popularity at the moment. The combination of his affability and inclusive nature makes him very likable as a leader. But ignoring this referendum may prove to be an achilles heel for him. The repeal of section 59 started the downfall of Helen Clark and the previous government. Key would be unwise to make the same mistake.