Family First have just released that a private members bill is set to go into the ballot to amend the anti-smacking law. Assuming it is well drafted, ACT’s John Boscawen is the MP parents across the country can thank.
While we do not buy into the notion that this law should be changed because the majority want it to be (the majority agreeing with or wanting something is not, in and of itself, a good enough reason to change the law as the fact a majority support a policy does not entail that the policy is just or right; the majority can and often are mistaken) nevertheless, we do share Family First’s concerns “that parents are hugely confused over the legal effect of the law.” We also agree that “parents have a right to know whether they are parenting within the law or not.”
The law has been made confusing by virtue of the political football this issue has become; so much disagreement as to how it applies makes relying on any one opinion risky, it doesn’t help that the law is drafted like a dogs breakfast either. These factors mean that people are unable to find out what the law actually means; hence, it becomes impossible for them to alter their behaviour to comply with the law.
This is an unjust situation that needs rectification. Criminal laws threaten people with loss of property, liberty and parental rights if they are not complied with further they set public expectations of behaviour. To be told you must conduct yourself in terms of X or else and then not be told clearly and unequivocally what X is is unjust.
But there is another issue which struck me yesterday; the law actually effects third parties.
Earlier this week I was at a supermarket and I observed a woman shopping with two children. One of whom, a pre-schooler, was going out of his way to play up. I heard them coming around the aisle before I saw them as he was being loud and argumentative demanding to go home immediately and was repeatedly trying to run off. He had a big grin on his face as he loudly taunted his mum and sibling and kept wriggling to get away from his mother who was holding his hand and pushing the grocery laden trolley, with a baby in the front, with the other hand (and struggling with both tasks).
The little boy twisted his hand out of his mother’s grasp and ran away from her laughing. She called him to come back, he yelled no, then grinned and laughed, clearly taking delight in her frustration as she said it again and he kept running.
She had to give chase with the laden trolley and baby as he ran between two big freestanding displays. I ducked around one end in an attempt to head him off, as I knew only too well the place she was in having parented a supermarket runner of my own, but he was too quick for me.
In the end she ran after him and I watched her baby and trolley. The whole time he was defying her requests to stop and come back and gleefully enjoying misbehaving. When she caught him she said “I told you to not run off, I asked you to come back, we have talked about this before, your behaviour is not ok” and she gave him an open handed smack right in front of me. She then finished her groceries in peace.
The point of this story is not to make some claim that smacking is ok because it worked in this instance; such an argument is flawed for at least two reasons, first it suggests that the only relevant issue in assessing the morality of a punishment is its effectiveness, and secondly it makes a claim about a class of actions on the basis of one observed instance. I shared this story as I want to share my reaction to seeing her smack her child.
The minute I saw her do it I knew she was breaking the law. According to the law she was engaging in assault against her child and in the absence of a defence she was legally a child abuser. Normally, when I witness someone breaking the law I feel duty bound to inform the appropriate authority; particularly if I witness assault or child abuse. However, I felt conflicted.
I knew I was not witnessing child abuse, yet (assuming the claims about the law are correct which is a big assumption) I was not the police so it was not my place to use discretion. Further, I have strong, reasonably held objections to the law. So I chose to not report her, instead I chose to put myself in the position of failing in my civic duty to report a violation of the law.
My point is that the law not only made the mother in this situation a child abuser but that all of us who fail to report it are like those people who know of and witness domestic violence and refuse to report it. The principles that I hold regarding my duty to report law breaking that I witness have been violated and are no longer clear despite my being certain I did the right thing.
I look forward to reading the Bill and I congratulate Family First for keeping this issue current and John Boscawen for doing what National has not.