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January 06th 2009 print

Bill Muehlenberg

Turning Parents into Criminals

A great way to turn most parents into criminals overnight would be to ban all corporal punishment in the home. Make smacking illegal, and most of the adult population would find themselves to be lawbreakers. That is the likely outcome of yet another call to ban all hitting of children.

A great way to turn most parents into criminals overnight would be to ban all corporal punishment in the home. Make smacking illegal, and most of the adult population would find themselves to be lawbreakers. That is the likely outcome of yet another call to ban all hitting of children.

In the latest effort to eliminate all smacking, some Australian psychologists have said smacking leads to child homicide. Here is how one news report puts it:

“Child homicide rates could be slashed if parents are banned from smacking their children, according to new research by Australian doctors. Revealing that a third of child homicides are caused by ‘fatal child abuse’ linked to corporal punishment by parents and carers, psychologists have called for smacking to be outlawed. Of the 165 cases of child homicide committed in New South Wales between 1991 and 2005, 59 were caused by physical punishments with young fathers and stepfathers the biggest culprits. The call is being backed by Australian Childhood Foundation chief executive officer Joe Tucci, who said the risks associated with physical punishment were too great to allow smacking to continue.”

The research was lead by Dr Olav Nielssen from Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital who said it was time for Australia to follow international lead: "A third of the homicides were due to fatal child abuse and any measure that reduced it is worth considering it".

The entire article is an interesting exercise in sloppy thinking, confusion, non-sequiturs and misinformation. Let me note a few such examples. For starters, the article says fatal child abuse is “linked to corporal punishment by parents and carers”. But just what is the link, and how is it measured?

It is of course true to say that almost all child deaths have to involve some sort of corporal punishment or abuse. But obviously not all corporal punishment is to be equated with abuse or the violent punishment that leads to death.

Yet these experts are telling us all corporal discipline of children must be banned, because some children die of child abuse. But that is as helpful as saying all automobile driving must be banned, because some drivers abuse their privilege, drive while drunk, and kill someone.

And of course Sweden is mentioned in the article. It banned smacking 30 years ago. The article quoted Nielssen as saying, “Everyone laughed when Sweden introduced it (smacking bans) 30 years ago, but in the 15 years after they did they didn’t have a single case of fatal child abuse and a lot of other countries have followed suit.”

There are a number of problems with this claim. First, note that he says 15 years – but the ban has been in place for 30 years. There have been a number of cases of fatal child abuse in Sweden since the ban came into place. Also, there was a very low level of fatal child abuse in Sweden before the ban came in effect. So the ban really changed nothing in this regard, and thus it was disingenuous of the good doctor to even raise the issue of Sweden.

Indeed, the research about Sweden seems to work the other way. For example, studies have found that child abuse levels have been higher in Sweden than in the US, where smacking is legal. Indeed, one study put it this way:

“Although the Swedish anti-spanking law was intended to reduce child abuse, the best empirical study since then indicated that the rate of child abuse in Sweden was 49% higher than in the United States one year after the anti-spanking law was passed. Does this mean that the anti-spanking law increased the rate of physical child abuse in Sweden? Deley’s (1988) retrospective data indicates that the Swedish physical child abuse rate was 21% of the USA rate in the 1960s and 1970s. This suggests that the anti-spanking law not only failed to achieve its goal of reducing child abuse, but that the child abuse rate increased from 21% to 149% of the equivalent USA rate, a seven-fold increase relative to the decreasing rate in the United States.”

When I debated Nielssen on radio about this topic, there was more fuzzy logic and convoluted reasoning. Interestingly, he admitted that a ban on smacking would not stop child abuse/homicide. Indeed, he was a bit wishy washy during the session, repeating the claim that something must nonetheless be done.

But his whole approach is that of mixing apples with oranges. He rightly says that some children who are abused will die. Of course – if a child is being beaten, some deaths will result. But such abuse is already illegal. Smacking a child in love as a last resort is not child abuse. Why does he keep equating the two, when they are clearly different?

And on the radio debate he said smacking is always done in anger by parents, who are emotionally hyped up. Is that true? Do all smacks come from anger? Many smacks are the loving acts of a parent trying to prevent serious harm to a toddler. For example, when a two-year-old is reaching for the fire, a quick rap on the hand has nothing to do with anger or emotion, but everything to do with parents lovingly seeking to protect the child.

New Zealand has recently banned smacking, and there has been quite a backlash there about it. As Bob McCoskrie, National Director of Family First NZ says, “The smacking ban in NZ has done more harm than good with a 30 per cent increase in parents being referred to social agencies yet a decrease in cases warranting further investigation. And the child abuse rate continues unabated. No decent research shows a smack by a loving parent breeds violence. That’s why a petition signed by over 300,000 kiwis has forced a referendum on the issue, and polls show that around 80 per cent of New Zealanders continue to oppose the anti-smacking law.”

McCoskrie also notes how the evidence points away from the prohibitionists: “The 2007 UNICEF report on child abuse said that the likelihood of a child being injured or killed is associated with parental drug or alcohol abuse, weak family ties, single-parenthood, low maternal education, low maternal age at birth, poverty, and poor housing. In the 2003 UNICEF report on maltreatment deaths, of the five countries with the lowest child abuse death rates in the UNICEF report, four allowed smacking. Of the ten safest countries for children in the 2007 report, six hadn’t banned smacking.”

Indeed, remember what was reported in the article: “Of the 165 cases of child homicide committed in New South Wales between 1991 and 2005, 59 were caused by physical punishments with young fathers and stepfathers the biggest culprits.” It is not clear here as to which group is the main culprit – fathers or stepfathers, but from other research the answer should be evident.

From 35 years of social science data, we know that the safest place for a child to live is with his own biological mother and father. Any other family structure will greatly increase the risk of danger for the child, including that of child abuse and death. Any male living in the household other than a child’s biological father will up the odds of these activities. The research on this is voluminous. Let me offer just a few Australian examples here.

The former Human Rights Commissioner Brian Burdekin has reported a 500 to 600 per cent increase in sexual abuse of girls in families where the adult male was not the natural father. Heather Strang of the Australian Institute of Criminology notes that infants under the age of 12 months are the population group at highest risk of being murdered, and the most likely killer of a child is his or her non-biological father – “in other words, the mother’s new partner.” Furthermore, a study by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare found that children of single mothers are three times more likely to suffer physical or emotional abuse.

A 1994-95 study by the AIHW found that more cases of child abuse involved children from single parent families (39%) than families with two natural parents (30%) or other two-parent families (such as families with a step-parent) (21%). Of neglect cases, 47% involved children from female single parent families compared with 26% from families with two natural parents. More recent Australian research has found that the typical child murderer is a young man in a de facto relationship with the victim’s mother.

A study of 1998-1999 Victorian child abuse victims found that 45 per cent lived with single parents. The report, by the AIHW, found that children who lived in natural two-parent families had a relatively low risk of abuse. And a more recent report from the same Institute reveals that children are most likely to be neglected or abused in single-parent families. It found that the ACT has the highest rate of maltreatment of children from female one-parent families (47 per cent), compared with 29 per cent in two-parent natural families and 18 per cent in step families or blended families.

Of course international studies come up with exactly the same results. So if we are really serious about reducing the levels of child abuse and child homicides, we need to do more to strengthen and support two-parent biological families. This, instead, of creating a whole new class of parental criminals, is the wise way to proceed.

In sum, the evidence is simply not there that a ban on smacking will lead to less child abuse and deaths. The connection between the two simply does not exist. The smacking ban crowd may be well-intentioned, but sometimes good intentions can lead to bad outcomes.

This is especially so when the social engineers want to coercively promote their utopian schemes. Using the strong arm of the law, and turning genuine parental discipline into a criminal activity is hardly a family-friendly policy. And it will not help children either. Perhaps what we really need to ban are those who would ban smacking, and their befuddled academic supporters.