Canada

Punishment gets a scolding

But anti-spank crusaders collide with critics

Patricia Chisholm December 20 1999
Canada

Punishment gets a scolding

But anti-spank crusaders collide with critics

Patricia Chisholm December 20 1999

Punishment gets a scolding

Canada

But anti-spank crusaders collide with critics

Patricia Chisholm

Child needs to put on snowsuit. Howling, flailing child refuses to put on snowsuit. After 10 or 15 minutes of that all-too-common scenario, many frustrated parents might resort to a smack on the bum. But last week, a children’s rights group asked an Ontario Superior Court judge to outlaw spanking. The Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth & the Law maintains that Section 43 of the Criminal Code, which permits “reasonable” force when disciplining a child, violates children’s constitutional rights.

The federal government, the Canadian Teachers’ Federation and Focus on the Family, a Vancouver-based family rights group, are some of the organizations fighting the application, claiming that repealing the section—the case is likely to go to the Supreme Court of Canada—will criminalize even mild physical discipline. And that is an idea that

Section 43: 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.

upsets many parents. “It should only be used as a last resort, but I would hate to be in a situation where I didn’t have that to fall back on,” says Eve Stagg, a mother of two boys, ages 7 and 3, in Surrey, B.C.

The spanking question usually arises once infants have morphed into that mixture of sunshine, recklessness and downright obstinacy known as a toddler. Two decades ago, there was very little debate about the matter: the occa-

spankers, however, believe that the century-old Criminal Code section provides a dangerous shield for those who use force against youngsters. “I believe it [repeal of the section] is the right thing to do,” says Paul Schabas, the Toronto lawyer who is acting for the Foundation on a pro bono basis. “The section says that it’s right to hit the kids, for their own good. And that’s wrong.”

sional smack, often applied to a bare bottom, was considered a parental right, if not a necessity, when it came to maintaining family order. But changing social attitudes, pardy backed up by new research, have ignited a ferocious argument over the issue. Proponents say physical punishment, used as a last resort by loving parents, can help

raise responsible children. The anti-

Others, though, say the issue is not that simple. While they may not support physical punishment, they advise against repealing the section. Peter Nieman, the Calgary pediatrician who is the principal author of the Canadian Paediatric Society’s pamphlet on disciplining children, says the Society does not recommend spanking. He points out, however, that research has yet to conclude that occasional light spanking of young children does lasting harm. (There is conclusive evidence however, that hitting children 14 or older leads to more violence by those children.) Banning the practice completely could lead to more verbal and emotional abuse by frustrated parents, he says. “But I think there are better ways to discipline a child, like using time-outs and consequences,” he adds. “If you are spanking

once a day, you have a big problem.”

Canadian teachers are even more strongly opposed to doing away with Section 43. There are simply too many occasions, says Teachers’ Federation spokesman Harvey Weiner, where teachers must either get between tussling students or are compelled to restrain an unruly student. “We are opposed to corporal punishment and that works for the vast majority of kids,” Weiner says. “But there are some who require physical intervention.”

This is a debate that is not likely to be resolved anytime soon. While there is some persuasive research linking spanking and later emotional and intellectual problems for children, critics say those studies are flawed and that further research is required. Yet even the views of spankers are shifting. Stagg, for one, says parents should carefully assess their children before deciding to spank—it is simply not appropriate for some kids, she says. And she gives her own boys three warnings before resorting to physical punishment. Clearly, the days are gone when a belt across the hands, or a slap to the head might be considered “reasonable.” And those fundamental shifts in attitude may ultimately do more than any amendment of the law to spoil the rod and spare the child. E3