Global News with Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui and Tracie Afifi 26 March 2019
This week, Wales joined a growing list of countries that have banned or are in the process of banning spanking, hitting, and other physical means of punishing children.
There’s long been a global push to ban corporal punishment for kids: Sweden led the world in 1979, while Canada has not yet removed Section 43 of the Criminal Code.
A bill to remove that section — which allows parents, schoolteachers, and those “standing in the place of a parent” to use corrective force as long as it doesn’t exceed “what is reasonable under the circumstances” — was referred to a Senate committee nearly a year ago.
The Welsh government’s motion, introduced Monday, would put a stop to striking a child as punishment. If passed, however, it would be up to the people who happened to witness a parent hitting or spanking their child to report it to police. Police would then confer with the Crown on whether to prosecute.
As with any law, the onus is on citizens to report, but at a time when attention is increasingly being paid to the overrepresentation of minority communities in the criminal justice system, as well as the overrepresentation of Indigenous children in the child welfare system, is it a good idea to leave the enforcement of such a ban up to the whims of passersby?
“Racism, discrimination, and stereotypes are going to feed into people’s perception of things,” says Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a doctoral researcher at McMaster University who specializes in racism and social inequality.
“We already know that people who are not white get profiled, not just by law enforcement but even from other people in public,” Ghaffar-Siddiqui says. “So if they see someone speaking loudly to their child, they might start surveillance of the family a little more based on that bias and stereotype if the person looks like they’re from a lower socio-economic background or if they’re not white.”
Mary Birdsell, executive director of Justice for Children and Youth, doesn’t discount the impacts of racism on the criminal justice system but says we also need to address the question of the extent to which we think it’s OK to harm children.
“In a society where we punish assaultive behaviour, we shouldn’t exclude children as potential victims of assaultive behaviour,” Birdsell says.
Research on physical punishment is fairly critical: studies have shown spanking can have a negative psychological effect on children and their development, while other studies have tied it to longer-term mental health issues.
But the purpose of a ban isn’t to turn an army of citizens into police, says Tracie Afifi, a professor in community health sciences at the University of Manitoba. In fact, she says, that wasn’t what happened in Sweden, where researchers have been able to analyze nearly 40 years of data.
“There are no downsides to it,” she says. “It’s actually just keeping kids safe.”
The idea isn’t to hold up a ban as the single solution, Afifi says, but to use it as an early intervention strategy as well as a mechanism for cultural change.
“We need to change the way we think about how we discipline children, so we need that higher-level ban in place so we can start changing the social norms,” she says.
The focus should be on emphasizing positive parenting, explains retired parenting expert Kathy Lynn.
“What we need to do is help parents learn all the millions of other ways that they can be raising and disciplining their kids without hitting them,” says Lynn, who chairs Corinne’s Quest, an organization dedicated to ending the physical punishment of kids in Canada.
“It’s absolutely, totally appalling that in this country we are still permitting people to assault children.”
It’s not new to rely on citizen reporting, nor is it necessarily a bad thing, says Afifi — already laws require teachers and other professionals to report suspicions of physical abuse. At that point, she says, police investigate to see if there’s anything to substantiate.
“It’s just shifting it a little bit,” she says.
People should be encouraged to consider both the disproportionate use of punitive justice against racialized people and Indigenous people, Birdsell says, as well as children whose parents use physical punishment as a tool to raise them.
A balance is needed, says Birdsell, who offered a reminder about the systems we rely on as safeguards: “They only work well when they’re working fairly.”