Sparing The Rod

Is corporal punishment of children child abuse or does it constitute a reasonable corrective measure? The debate has been an active one in Canada as in other countries for decades. And it usually hits the headlines only when child "punishment" goes wrong and the courts are asked, once again, to decide if the physical force used to "correct" a child has crossed the line into child abuse.

Child advocates argue that if corporal punishment hasn't already crossed the line into abuse, in many cases it will, and should therefore be ruled unlawful. Parents who defend their right to physically punish their children argue that it is a reasonable and effective way to correct unacceptable behavior. And the Canadian courts can't seem to decide.

In the past 15 years, at least 10 nations have passed laws that redefine physical punishment of children as an unlawful violent act. These include Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Israel, Latvia, Norway and Sweden.

But in Canada, an Ontario Court of Appeal decided last year that Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada (permitting the use of physical force to discipline children) is not a violation of the constitutional rights of children. Section 43 states: "Every schoolteacher, parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances."

While the Ontario court was reluctant to interfere in parental responsibilities for disciplining their children or to criminalize corporal punishment, its decision was not an endorsement of corporal punishment. The court pointed out that every province has legislation to protect children from harm, and it clearly preferred that arena for regulating the use of physical force with respect to children. However, critics argue that the court's decision was based on an erroneous and unworkable distinction between "abusive" and "non-abusive" corporal punishment, and that its decision did little to assist parents and others to know what kinds of disciplinary actions are protected under criminal law and which are not.

Few child behavior experts will argue that corporal punishment should be encouraged as a tool of child discipline. When these cases reach the courts, both sides can line up experts to present the arguments about whether or not corporal punishment actually causes harm.

Historically, opposition to the repeal of Section 43 has come not only from the conservative religious and so-called "family rights" groups but also from the teaching profession. Many teachers believe that Section 43 provides them with some protection from frivolous or malicious accusations of assault if they are forced to physically restrain a child.

Interestingly, while the experts who testified in the Ontario Court of Appeal case couldn't agree on whether or not spanking is an acceptable form of discipline, there were large areas of agreement between the two groups of experts. Some of the issues on which they agreed were that it is unacceptable and potentially harmful to use corporal punishment with children under two or with teenagers, to use objects such as rulers, belts etc. in corporal punishment, and to slap or hit a child's head. The experts all agreed that corporal punishment that results in injury is child abuse. And most agreed that spanking - defined as "the administering of one or two mild to moderate 'smacks' with an open hand, on the buttocks or extremities which does not cause physical harm" - does not constitute child abuse. They also agreed that research indicates that short-term compliance is the only benefit of spanking and that in most cases, other forms of discipline - such as removing a child from the scene or withdrawing privileges - are equally effective.

Joan Braun, a lawyer and Executive Director of the British Columbia/Yukon Society of Transition Houses, writing for the BC Institute Against Family Violence newsletter, comments on the Ontario Court of Appeal decision: "...from a social science perspective, the court's approach was flawed. The court stated that children should be protected from abusive discipline (presumably by provincial child protection legislation), but wanted to avoid criminalizing non-abusive discipline. However, research
tells us that abuse cannot be prevented by an approach that divides discipline into two distinct categories - the abusive and the non-abusive."

This position is supported by Dr Joan Durrant, Head of the Department of Family Studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, who presents compelling evidence about the strong links between corporal punishment and child abuse. She describes how spanking, while stopping the "bad" behavior in the short term, ultimately leads to the child's worsening behavior, which in turn leads to more physical punishment, which often escalates into harsher and harsher "punishment" that can only be described as abuse.

The Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect, published in 2001 by Health Canada, provided important insight into the links between corporal punishment and child abuse. The study looked at child abuse and neglect cases investigated by child welfare authorities across Canada. Of the substantiated cases of child physical abuse, 69 per cent "occurred as a result of inappropriate punishment (e.g., hitting with hand or object) that led to physical harm, or put the child at substantial risk of harm".

Says Dr Durrant, "It has been demonstrated in a number of large studies across time and samples that a majority of cases of child physical abuse occur within the context of a disciplinary incident. Societal acceptance...of parental use of physical punishment contributes to this problem. Clear societal messages that reject the use of violence as a means of conflict resolution help to put into place inhibitory controls that are necessary in the face of frustration, and set a behavioral standard. In Canada, we have made this message clear with regard to partners, peers and strangers."

Why have we not made this message equally clear with respect to children, our most vulnerable population?

It is a shame that the recent Ontario Court of Appeal did not take the opportunity to do just that. However, given the significance of this issue as one of national importance, the Canadian child advocacy community is hopeful that the Supreme Court of Canada will agree to hear this case, and that the issue will finally be addressed by the highest court in the country. 


More by :  Linda Light

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