NZ Herald Column Kyle MacDonald

Here’s what’s really wrong with smacking kids

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

So here we are, in 2017, once more having a debate because some people believe it’s a good thing to use physical violence against children. And as if that isn’t bad enough, some politicians even see it as a way to grab some votes.

Frankly, I find it morally reprehensible we’re still having this conversation, but I also understand there is a big difference between making a mistake as a parent, which most later regret, and arguing for the right to intentionally and deliberately use violence against young people.

But there is confusion in many of the arguments, the “n=1” problem. If you were smacked by your parents, and you feel it did you no harm, you may even be right, but your sample size of one (just yourself) proves nothing. In fact it’s more accurate to say you are okay, despite being smacked.

As you might expect there’s been a ton of research into the impact of smacking, and while controversy exists as to how bad it is, there isn’t a single study that shows it improves childhood outcomes.

There are some fairly large “meta-analysis” studies, where the results of many large studies are collected together to understand the overall trends, and these show clearly that spanking, specifically – as opposed to more severe physical violence – is clearly associated with a range of negative behaviours, both as children and later as adults, including increased use of interpersonal violence, aggression, mental health problems and substance abuse.

Before you go rushing off to claim that “yes but there’s this one study/expert/example that says it’s fine to smack kids”, science is about weight of evidence, and putting together a picture over time.

And the picture is clear: There is no known safe level of physical violence that can be used with children. Or to put it another way: Any use of physical violence, even so called light “smacking” runs the risk of adverse outcomes.

But there’s a simpler test: When was the last time someone hit you? Have you been assaulted as an adult? What did it feel like, even if it didn’t hurt much, did you feel angry, humiliated, powerless, enraged?

Did it improve your relationship with the person that just hit you?

Empathy is what goes missing in the politicisation of parenting. I have a lot of empathy for parents who lash out in frustration, because that’s what they know to do, or what was done to them. We should be able to make the distinction between saying this is wrong and let’s help you do this differently. Our current law recognises this, and allows for help not punishment to be the outcome of any reported incident.

But that is worlds apart from those who seek to argue for the use of violence being acceptable. And if you’re argument is that I was smacked, and it did me no harm, so I’ll do the same to my kids, then you’ve just proved the research right.

Violence begets violence, and no good comes from that.

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