Aiming to keep kids safe

Good parents – those who provide a caring and loving environment for their children – have nothing to fear from the law change designed to keep kids safe.It will not make criminals out of parents who lightly smack their children or who use physical intervention to stop children hurting themselves or others. Despite the hysteria in some quarters, parents will not be (and have not been since the law changed) prosecuted for physically stopping children from causing a disturbance, or for picking them up and putting them in their room to “chill out”.

For good parents, it’s business as usual. The new legislation is aimed not at penalising caring parents, but at keeping kids in our country safe by reducing the violence against them. It is one part of a strategy that must stop the woeful record of family violence in New Zealand. Violence is not an effective form of child discipline. The effects can have far-reaching consequences for our children, and for their future as adults. There are alternatives to hitting as a form of correction, see elsewhere on our website for effective ways to do this without violence.

The Children’s Commissioner says the law sets a standard that is consistent with what we know about helping children to behave well and with the goals of child discipline. In an excellent booklet called Choose to Hug, the Office of the Commissioner for Children says that research shows it takes time for children to learn how to behave in socially acceptable ways. One of the goals of raising a child is to make behaving well something a child chooses to do because it is part of who they are, rather than something done because they fear punishment. It is about learning self-discipline, the Choose to Hug booklet says. Indeed, learning self-discipline extends through adolescence and even into adulthood.

There are many things a parent can do to help this process – positive actions that help the child feel safe, loved and guided. Smacking and hitting are not part of these actions. Smacking children sometimes works in the short term, but it does not contribute to a child developing self-discipline. “When we discipline children we are often trying to get the child to behave well in the short term (for example, to stop kicking the cat) and of course that matters,” Choose to Hug says. “But we should not forget that our ultimate goal is a long-term one. We want children to develop self-discipline and to grow up to be caring, confident and respectful people (who avoid hurting animals because they know it is wrong and they care about animals).” New Zealand should be known as a place where “hitting is not OK” – and that applies equally to children as it does to adults.

Leading by example

What we see in the mirror is what we can expect our children to be. Is the person we see angry, stressed, depressed or tired? Do we talk to our children, give them our time and love, and look after ourselves? What we are is what our children can become, because our children learn behaviour from us. If we hit our children, they are likely to hit their children. Children who live in abusive families are more likely to be aggressive and violent. Most of us will have seen the Child, Youth and Family campaign aimed at “breaking the cycle”. The child sits in his high chair as the parents argue and abuse each other. And the youngster who is yelled at for spilling the milk throws the stone through the glasshouse. When children are brought up in this kind of environment, they will believe that such behaviour is normal. They will believe that when you’re angry and upset, you can hit out. We can break the cycle by changing the way we act and react with our children. Our own behaviour can give them positive messages that reinforce their confidence and self-worth, and it is more likely they will continue those positive messages with their children.

Hitting does not work

In New Zealand, hitting a child is still seen by many parents as a legitimate part of parenting. The recent amendment to section 59 of the Crimes Act removed the defence of “reasonable force” for people who disciplined their children by hitting them. However, a study by the Office of the Commissioner for Children showed that 2% of a random sample of more than 300 parents said they had given their child “a really severe thrashing” and 11% reported they had “hit with a strap, stick, or something similar”.

The law does not allow adults to hit each other, it does not allow teachers or others outside the family to hit children, and now children are also protected from hitting within the family. Some groups have actively encouraged hitting as a form of discipline for children, with one group suggesting that children aged seven could safely receive spankings up to 30 times a day with a leather strap. However, welfare agencies throughout New Zealand promote effective alternatives, arguing that hitting does not teach children how to behave, but how to hit. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner says no matter how hard it gets, it’s never OK to hit children.

The commissioner argues that children should have the same protection and dignity as other people in the community. Using physical force teaches children that it is OK to use violence to solve an argument, show anger or influence others. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner, the Child, Youth and Family Service and many parenting and support agencies have plenty of pamphlets and videos that provide practical alternatives to help you resolve tense situations and encourage good behaviour in your children.

This information is of value not just for parents who hit their children, it also looks at ways of encouraging positive behaviour in children and enjoying the role of parenting. It features real parents who talk about their stresses and how they feel about parenting. If there are effective alternatives, why do parents still hit their children? One argument is that physical discipline is swift and encourages instant remorse. However, if it is successful in changing a child’s behaviour, the change only occurs because the child is fearful of being hurt.

In some cases, especially small children, they might not even know why they are being hit. If hitting is intended as a lesson, it cannot be effective if children become fearful and resentful. Hitting also tends to have a reduced effect the more it is administered. The more a child is hit, the less effective it becomes, and the more likely it is that a parent will hit harder to get the desired reaction. Hitting is not only a response to a “naughty” child, but is also often an outlet for a parent’s frustrations.

The stressed parent who is not coping well with work or the lack of it, with a relationship or whatever, can often strike a child without the child having done anything wrong. In some cases, the hitting is sustained and brutal, leading to long-term injury, psychological and emotional harm, and even death. Some of these children are not even old enough to know what the parent considers right or wrong. The alternatives to hitting require patience, but the rewards are worth the effort.

Child abuse

“The desperate face of a two-year-old boy peering from his bedroom window set off bells of alarm that led to the rescue of a toddler surrounded by filth and isolated from the outside world, an Auckland court was told today. The West Auckland boy was found covered in faeces and imprisoned in his room so his mother, who worked as a stripper, could hit the town at night. Neighbours said the boy was violent, spoke in grunts and went through their rubbish like a dog. A neighbour, seeing the boy’s face at his window in October, dialled 111 for help. Yesterday, the 23- year-old mother, who has name suppression, sobbed in Henderson District Court when she was convicted by Judge Coral Shaw of wilful neglect….” NZ Press Association report, December 12, 1997.

Abuse and neglect of children in the family is a serious, ongoing problem in New Zealand. High profile cases are greeted with revulsion by most parents, but they still occur with uncomfortable regularity. Abuse is not usually random, but occurring on a regular basis that gets worse over time. It is not defined as just physical attacks or sexual abuse – it can include emotional or psychological acts that are designed to exert power and control over children. Abuse can be:

  • Physical – sometimes it does not cause bleeding or leave bruises, but it is enough to cause fear of physical harm in a child.

When violence is used, a child fears that next time it will be worse.

  • Sexual – rape or the use of force or coercion to induce a child to engage in sexual acts against their will.
  • Emotional – it can be constant put-downs and name-calling, intimidation and harassment; things that make children feel bad about themselves.

It is likely to include yelling and threats of physical violence, or threats designed to make children fearful. Looks, actions and expressions might be used to instil fear. Items valuable to a child might be smashed or pets harmed.

  • Isolation – a child might be isolated from friends, often because their friends are made to feel unwelcome in the home.
  • Neglect – depriving children of necessities such as food, shelter, supervision appropriate to their age and essential physical and medical care.

Child abuse occurs in all types of New Zealand homes – it is as likely to occur in a wealthy city suburb as a poor country town and is common across families, religions, races and cultures. In most cases of abuse, the abuser is well known to the victim – a family member, close relative or friend of the family. While actual violence against children is a big concern, children are also harmed by the violence they might witness in the home. A Women’s Refuge study suggested that, for women receiving help from refuges, 90% of their children had witnessed violence and 50% of the children had also been physically abused. 12% had been sexually abused. It is of concern that children not only see the violence, but also hear the shouting and crying that go with it.

Effects on children

As victims and witnesses of family violence, children can be severely harmed. Children can suffer horrific injuries as the result of violence in the home. Adults, because of their usually dominant physical strength, can hurt children more than they ever mean to. If their mother is subjected to violence, most children know. They often witness the traumatic beatings or the humiliation. Sometimes they get involved, trying to help by attempting stopping the violence themselves. They can get hurt by accident or as part of the attack on another victim.

Studies have shown children suffer long-term effects of witnessing abuse through:

  • increased illness;
  • low self-esteem;
  • social problems;
  • failure at school;
  • violent delinquency.

A United States study found that children who grew up in violent homes were twice as likely to commit violent crimes as those who lived in safe homes. Children who witness family violence have been shown to be more aggressive and antisocial, more fearful, and to have low social skills. Many show behavioural problems such as hyperactivity, anxiety or aggression that are severe enough to be regarded as clinical problems.

The greatest long-term danger is perhaps that children accept that violence is acceptable behaviour – that when an adult is angry or frustrated, violence is a solution. Girls who see their mother abused can model their mother’s behaviour, becoming fearful, withdrawn and distrustful. Girls who have been in abusive families are more likely to accept victimisation and violence from their friends and partners in adulthood. Boys might model their behaviour on that of their violent father. Boys can become aggressive, bullying not only their friends and siblings as youngsters, but also their mother. As adults, they are more likely to beat their partners and commit violent crimes.

How it happens

Child abuse is about power and control – a desire by an abuser to dominate a child through fear. Why do adults want to do that? Often it is simply that they know of no alternatives to physical discipline, or that they want to cover their own inadequacies by trying to dominate children who are in no position to defend themselves. Many parents grew up with abuse in their own family and are simply continuing the cycle. Part of the reason it has become such a problem is that society has accepted that abuse in a family is where it stays – many people accept that “it’s nothing to do with us”. Of course, there are triggers to abuse, such as alcohol and drugs, stress, unemployment and so on.

But it will not stop until everyone sees abuse as socially unacceptable, wherever it occurs. Police and welfare agency initiatives in dealing with child abuse have begun to change the attitudes of society. An abuser is no longer able to continue violent behaviour without the risk of neighbours, family and friends reporting it. And when it is reported, it is dealt with by the Police, the Child, Youth and Family service and a justice system that recognises it is a crime. Society is now also expecting abusers to take responsibility for their actions and to take the consequences; to get help, to do something about their behaviour.

What you can do to help keep kids safe

In a crisis, dial 111 and ask for the Police. If your children are in immediate danger from another family member, a visitor or intruder, look for safety first. Run outside or head for a public place, scream for help or call the Police. Emergency 111 calls are free from all telephones, including payphones and cellular phones. If are a neighbour or other witness to violence or other abuse, you have a responsibility to report it. It is a crime and the Police will react accordingly. They ensure firstly the safety of the children.

If you suspect your own children or those of a family member or a close friend are being abused, find out what you can about the family’s present situation. Talk to the parents and listen for any clues as to whether they feel they have particularly difficult problems. See how they react to their children and how their children react – is there a lot of yelling and threats, do the children look fearful? Can you encourage the parents to seek help? If they agree to get help, follow it up. If you are not sure what to do, talk to one of the agencies in our ‘Those who can help’ section.

They have trained staff who can advise you what to do or make discreet inquiries about the victim’s welfare. If you genuinely believe children are being harmed, call the Police, or Child, Youth and Family service immediately. Children need special help because they are often unable to take action to keep themselves safe. A Police officer or social worker can then take appropriate action to protect the child. If you merely suspect abuse is occurring – you might have heard yelling and slapping from next door, a child crying – should you report it? If you are not sure, contact a help agency. You can talk confidentially with them about what you know.

They will probably have a better idea whether abuse is occurring and will know what can be done to help. People, especially those not close to a victim, might be reluctant to report violence or abuse because they feel it is none of their business or they might be wrong. However, children have a right to be protected from harm – you might be their only hope of changing their circumstances.

Please help us to keep kids safe.