By Mark Penninga, Vancouver Sun, May 12 2015: Vancouver-Quadra Member of Parliament Joyce Murray stood in the House of Commons this month to condemn spanking. “Shockingly, section 43 of the Canadian Criminal Code still permits this cruel form of punishment, an archaic flaw in our legal system to say the least,” she sais. Murray proceeded to call on all MPs to ban physical punishment of children.
Canadian Parliamentarians have unsuccessfully introduced since 1997 eight private member’s bills to fully ban corporal punishment, also known as physical discipline or spanking.
A case challenging the legality of physical discipline went to the Supreme Court of Canada. The majority of Canada’s highest court ruled in 2004 the law Murray decries is constitutional. Chief Justice McLachlin, writing for the majority, took the opportunity to clarify what is and is not appropriate. Physical discipline may only be used for children between the ages of two and 12. It can’t include objects, or be directed at the head. Physical discipline must be sober and reasoned and address behaviour.
However, these restrictions aren’t enough for Murray and many others.
Given that about half of Canadian parents use physical discipline, this argument is not a minor or hypothetical matter. There are two key questions: is physical discipline really harmful or abusive, and who is the best situated to determine whether it is an acceptable form of discipline, the State or the parent?
Many news reports pronounce disastrous effects of spanking. The studies they cite examine the effects of harsh physical punishment (i.e., pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, punching) which is different than the conditional spanking that Canada’s Criminal Code contemplates. Yet it is these findings on harsh forms of physical punishment that are applied to the careful use of spanking, with very little context. Just as self-defence training is not the same as assault, not all physical discipline is the same. The research, and those reporting on it, must differentiate between different methods of physical discipline.
Researchers conducted in 2005 the first scientific review of studies comparing physical discipline with alternative methods of child discipline. They published their findings in the Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review. Twenty-six studies from over 50 years were examined. The conclusion: “Whether physical punishment compared favorably or unfavorably with other tactics depended on the type of physical punishment.” The study looked at what the researchers called an “optimal” type of physical discipline — conditional spanking. As echoed by our Supreme Court, conditional spanking is non-abusive, done sparingly, and under control. The authors of the study noted: “Conditional spanking was more strongly associated with reductions in noncompliance or antisocial behavior than 10 of 13 alternate disciplinary tactics.” In other words, when physical discipline is administered within the parameters of Canadian law, the results are as good as, or better than, all other forms of discipline.
Sweden in 1979 became the first nation to outlaw all physical discipline. Since then, criminal charges for physical child abuse by relatives against children under age seven increased by 489 per cent between 1981 and 1994. There was also a shocking 519-per-cent increase in criminal assaults by children under 15 against children aged 7-14. Perhaps most devastating, 46-60 per cent of cases investigated under Sweden’s law result in children being removed from homes. About 22,000 Swedish children were removed from homes in 1981, compared with 1,900 in Germany, 710 in Denmark, 552 in Finland, and 163 in Norway.
Consider the 2010 case of a mother and father from Karlstad, Sweden, jailed for nine months and ordered to pay 25,000 kronor ($11,000) to three of their children who were spanked. More damaging than the jail and fines, all four of their children were removed from their home. Although the court concluded that the parents “had a loving and caring relationship to their children,” apparently spanking is serious enough to merit such an extreme sentence.
Parents will have a variety of opinions about the merits of physical discipline. But problems arise when the state assumes the role of parent. The role of the state is limited to preserving an orderly society and punishing wrongdoers (including child abusers), so that the other institutions of society can flourish. The institution of the family is an independent part of civil society accountable directly to God (although the state increasingly understands itself to be a god it seems). Parents are entrusted with the authority to lovingly raise their children and the state may only interfere in exceptional circumstances, such as real child abuse.
There is much that the state can do to promote a society in which children are safe and families can flourish. Banning physical discipline will achieve neither.
Mark Penninga is the executive drector of the Association for Reformed Political Action Canada.