Originally published on The Guardian Australia
“I was smacked as a child, and I’m ok”. The line is a pretty common trope in conversations around parenting and discipline. In New Zealand, it’s particularly heard in reference to an amendment to the Crimes Act which came into effect in 2007.
The new law removed the legal defence of “reasonable force” for parents prosecuted for assault on their children. It still allows for parents to use force but restricts the circumstances permitting it, and has been widely read as a disincentive for using smacking as a disciplinary tool. It’s also used by some as “PC gone mad” evidence that “good parents” are now scared to lightly smack their own kid. Aspiring New Zealand politician Colin Craig did this exact thing today when he admitted to smacking his daughter.
I was smacked as a child, and I’m OK – if by OK you mean that my instinctual reaction to disciplining my own child is to hit him, because that’s what I was taught. The result of my childhood discipline experiences, which involved being yelled at and hit, means I now have to unlearn smacking as a tactic every single time my stepson acts like a jerk.
My 19 year old mother was a fabulous parent in many ways. She did not, however, have the resources many have today and laments the absence of shows like Super Nanny in the 1980s, from which she feels she could have learn a lot at the time. She now regrets her decision to try and reason with me through insults and fear, but this doesn’t stop me from still being frightened of her, at the age of 27. Her and I have had some very frank discussions about how she wants me to feel she’s always on my side and how instinctively, I don’t.
While I know that technically the law does not stop me from smacking my four year old child in some circumstances, I don’t want him to be in the same position that I’m in: one day realising when facing the fifth temper tantrum of the day that his parenting toolkit is sorely lacking because his gut reaction is to hit out when it gets too frustrating. Ironically, that’s a habit I’m trying to get him to stop now.
Unlearning smacking as a parenting tactic takes constant work, support and resolve. I categorically do not think that parents who smack are bad or lazy, but I do think many of them are under resourced. There are a myriad of reasons for this – a specific brand of toxic masculinity, entitlement, stigma and socio-economic barriers being just some.
But although some of the two thirds of New Zealand parents Colin Craig claims to represent may be in need of support, he is not. He may be a product of parenting flaws he needs to heal from and unlearn, but he is a wealthy, self-employed businessman with all the time in the world to wax lyrical about how other people should be parenting.
I don’t know whether Craig’s claim about a light flick on the knuckles is honest. But I do know that this type of rhetoric seems to be a dog whistle for the “I got the wooden spoon and it straightened me out” enthusiast. I am sick of hearing how “OK” people who were hit regularly by people much older and larger than them are. I am glad these people feel they’re fine. Most of the time I feel I’m OK. But it’s not because I was smacked as a child. It’s in spite of it.
Sharing these thoughts online earlier today lead to a lot of people telling their stories of trying to break the cycle. Men who get highly anxious when voices are raised, women who are trying to move past threats of hitting as a means of control, foster parents who had to work through their own baggage before they could help anyone else with theirs. As for me, I feel like an idiot for reading parenting tips on websites because mothers are still expected to be glowing naturals at child raising. Perhaps if I had a model of parenting growing up that wasn’t yelling and hitting, I would feel more confident parenting non-violently.
My mother and I have a fabulous relationship now, as equals. She doesn’t sugar coat her actions, I don’t begrudge a young single mother’s choice to fall back on strategies from her own childhood. But we both wish she’d had more resources. Craig claims the current law for using force on children in New Zealand is “stupid”, but it reminds me every day that I can’t fall back on using fear as a parenting tool. The use of the “no lasting damage” trope doesn’t speak for me or many other adults who are now standing in front of their own children, trying to do better.