Mr Neil Barber, a lecturer at the CSU School of Humanities and Social Sciences in Wagga Wagga, supports the recently publicised call by Dr Gervase Chaney and Professor Frank Oberklaid of the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne. Dr Chaney said that the claim of many of adults, that ‘smacking never did us any harm as a child’, is extremely problematic.
Mr Barber agrees with Dr Chaney because, “The evidence from Australia and around the world over many decades is pretty clear; most parents who smack a child do so as a reaction to their own emotional stressors, rather than to help the child understand their behaviour or vulnerability.
“While an individual instance of smacking might not be injurious, smacking is intended to cause pain, and research with children in Australia and elsewhere has shown that children get lots of messages from being smacked but not about changing behaviour,” Mr Barber said.
“Children have reported that they are aware of how their parent or carer is feeling when they smack them, and that often they believe those feelings are negative about them (the child) as a person, not about their behaviour as such. When parents or carers act out of their own considerable and compounded stress, then the awareness of the child’s age, understanding, and vulnerability is not in mind, and hitting can escalate in frequency, intensity and recklessness. For a child in such situations there are very real threats to physical and emotional safety, but also over time they themselves may begin to react to their emotional stressors by hitting out.”
Mr Barber acknowledged that many parents believe they can distinguish between smacking as a cautionary act and as a punishment.
“A common rationale given is that if a two-year-old is playing with an electricity power point a smack on the hand will stop them momentarily,” Mr Barber said. “It will cause pain and distress, and confusion, but it won’t communicate the reality of danger, even if the word, ‘danger’ is given at the same time. The word becomes associated with the power point, not the danger of electrocution.
“With older children, consistency and fairness are important. Children are acutely aware when they are being accused or dealt with unreasonably or unfairly, and the only reason they are likely to comply as a result of being hit in such situations is out of fear.”
Mr Barber said, education is helpful, but more critical is enabling parents to feel confident to do things differently, and that requires society to realise parents may have children who at times behave ‘like children’ and that helping children to learn requires patience, constancy, and time.
Mr Barber also agrees with Professor Oberklaid’s call for smacking of children to be outlawed.
“I argue that the continued provision of a legal defence for injuring a child – on the grounds that it was intended to administer corrective discipline – is outmoded and unreasonably excuses parents and carers from being required to think before they behave in ways intended to cause pain to a child.
“Even in NSW, which has at least legislated that it is not defensible to hit a child on the head or body or with an implement, it continues to create this ambivalence that hitting children is OK, and even beneficial,” Mr Barber said.
“I have reservations about establishing criminal codes against smacking children, because – and this is a critical point – an assault is an assault whatever the age of the victim and any differentiation about age is likely to preserve the ambivalence in society about whether there is a distinction to be made about behaviour toward children.”
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Contact CSU Media to arrange interviews with Mr Neil Barber.
Dr Gervase Chaney works at the Royal Children’s Hospital, Melbourne, and is President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians Paediatric and Child Health Division. Professor Frank Oberklaid is Director of the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne Centre for Community Child Health.