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Op/Ed: Violence and our children

It’s time to revisit the topic of corporal punishment of children: spanking, swatting, or otherwise hitting a child as punishment or “correction.”  Is it ever acceptable?  There are so many different views, but now we have some new research evidence favouring the totally non-violent approach to child-rearing.  

On March 5 of 2015, I published an editorial on Section 43 of the Criminal Code – the so-called “spanking section.”  That section has been used to justify striking children to help them learn right from wrong, to keep them from continuing an undesirable behaviour, and so on. Let’s look at exactly what it says.

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."

That 2015 editorial urged parents to consciously demonstrate respect and appreciation in interactions with children.  It pointed out that many people think that hitting children leads them to hit and bully other children, and later, their own children. 

An example of unreasonable force that resulted in a father’s manslaughter conviction being upheld by the Supreme Court of Canada showed that some people’s interpretation of “what is reasonable under the circumstances” can be deadly to a child.  Sane parents should not consider deadly force to be a reasonable brand of discipline under any circumstances.

The Canadian Government’s Department of Justice has a page on “The Criminal Law and Managing Children’s Behaviour.” It first explains in some detail and then summarizes what is, and what is not allowed.  The summary reads as follows:

The use of force to correct a child is only allowed to help the child learn and can never be used in anger.

  • The child must be between two years old and twelve years old.
  • The force used must be reasonable and its impact only "transitory and trifling".
  • The person must not use an object, such as a ruler or belt, when applying the force.
  • The person must not hit or slap the child's head.
  • The seriousness of what happened or what the child did is not relevant.

Using reasonable force to restrain a child may be acceptable in some circumstances.

Hitting a child in anger or in retaliation for something a child did is not considered reasonable and is against the law.

I mentioned evidence favouring the non-violent approach;  a recent study shows that incidents of physical violence in adolescents are less frequent in countries with a complete ban on corporal punishment of children.  The introduction to the study referred to the findings of other studies, all of which demonstrate that corporal punishment inflicts long-term harm:

“Several independent investigations have found that children’s exposure to corporal punishment relates to aggressive behaviours, mental health problems, academic problems and related cognitive deficits. Such outcomes have lifelong consequences for adult health and well-being. A meta-analysis of 75 studies found that childhood exposure to spanking, the most common form of corporal punishment, predicted 13 of 17 negative outcomes including aggression, antisocial behaviour, mental health problems, low self-esteem and physical abuse, and to antisocial behaviour and poor mental health in adulthood. A study of partner violence in six Asian and Pacific countries found that men’s experience of harsh physical parenting during their childhood related to violence against women in adulthood.”

We can safely conclude that people are better off in their future relationships, their ability to learn, and their mental health if no one physically abuses them, even if it’s an attempt at “discipline.”

The question is, why is Section 43 of Canada’s Criminal Code still allowing people to interpret in wildly differing ways what level of “force” is “reasonable” to use on a child?  Yes, the Supreme Court of Canada has issued the guidelines quoted above, but how many parents and guardians are aware of those guidelines? Isn’t it time for an amendment to make it clear?

I suggest an amendment that would read something like this:

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, only if the force is required to restrain the pupil or child from assaulting another person of any age, or harming him or herself or an animal, and only if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances. Under no circumstances is hitting, slapping, throwing, choking or otherwise physically hurting a pupil or child a reasonable form of correction.

Unfortunately, verbal abuse and bullying of children by scathing sarcasm and other forms of belittlement can do just as much damage to children as some forms of corporal punishment,  but we are not likely to see any Criminal Code provision prohibiting verbal abuse – except those special forms of verbal abuse which are crimes:

  • threatening to harm a child
  • threatening to harm another person
  • threatening to destroy the child's personal property
  • threatening to hurt the child's pet
  • harassing the child on the telephone
  • deliberately intimidating a child, and
  • advising a child to commit suicide.

 Canada’s Department of Justice has a page addressing emotional abuse. It lists those crimes (above) and remarks that provinces and territories have provisions to protect children from abuse – including emotional abuse.  

Those provisions work only if the child’s community members are caring enough and willing to intervene by reporting known or suspected abuse. The old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” still applies. And it’s a far, far better thing if the village is a non-violent one.