Smacking children: It's up for debate again, but should it be?

Conservative lobby group Family First has long campaigned for the right of parents to discipline their children using smacking. On Wednesday, spokesperson Bob McCoskrie told The AM Show the law is a "complete ass" and "parents are sick of politicians telling them how to raise their children". 

This election year, he's not the only one calling for change. New Zealand First leader Winston Peters wants another referendum on smacking.

But while the likes of Family First and NZ First insist a smack is part of good parenting, child advocate groups like UNICEF say disciplining children without hitting them "is part of creating a society with less violence in the home". 

Domestic abuse charity Shine says a repeal of the law would be a "terrible step back for our country."

Client services manager Jill Proudfoot says fewer new generations of parents are smacking their children, but one piece of legislation can't change a culture of violence and people still need lots of good advice about dealing with challenging behaviour.

A study from the University of Auckland has found one in 10 parents say they smack their kids to discipline them at least half the time. Depending on your perspective, that could mean the law is working and parents who smack their children lightly are not being punished, or it could mean the law needs to change so these parents are not technically committing an offence.

Either way, as the law comes up for debate, some of the basics can get swamped. 

Here are four things you need to know about child discipline law in New Zealand.

1. The law is designed to give child abusers no excuse

The law granted children the same right to protection from assault as adults. 

In cases where caregivers were being prosecuted for assault on children, the change in law means the defence of "reasonable force" cannot be used.

The introduction to former Green Party MP Sue Bradford's Bill explains its purpose was to "stop force, and associated violence being inflicted on children in the context of correction or discipline".

It says the law in its previous form acted "as a justification, excuse or defence for parents and guardians using force against their children".

2. Children will not be removed from parents who smack lightly

Oranga Tamariki, the Ministry for Vulnerable Children, says it would not act on reports of a light smack to a child, unless a report of smacking is part of wider concerns for the child.

On its website, the agency says it is concerned "with the abuse and neglect of children, not incidents of light smacking," and an open-palmed light smack is "most unlikely to constitute abuse".

The Ministry says its working definition of physical abuse hasn't changed since 2001. It remains:

"An act, or acts that result in inflicted injury to a child or young person."

A child would not be removed from their family unless they are subject to harm, abuse or ill-treatment.

3. The law does allow smacking under some circumstances, but it can't be used for 'correction'

A parent cannot smack a child for the sake of discipline or correction, but a smack may be used in some circumstances, such as protecting a child from harm.

Section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961 now reads:

"Every parent of a child and every person in the place of a parent of the child is justified in using force if the force used is reasonable in the circumstances and is for the purpose of:

  • preventing or minimising harm to the child or another person
  • preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in conduct that amounts to a criminal offence
  • preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in offensive or disruptive behaviour
  • performing the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting."

4. Police are unlikely to prosecute cases of light smacking

Police can choose not to prosecute complaints against parents where the force used is inconsequential or where there is no public interest in prosecuting.

What is a smack?

Smacking is commonly understood to be an open-palmed sharp slap which would leave no mark or injury on a child.