Journal of the New Zealand Medical Association, 14-December-2007, Vol 120 No 1267
Smacking—are we being too heavy-handed? Findings from the Pacific Islands Families Study
Philip J Schluter, Gerhard Sundborn, Max Abbott, Janis Paterson
Abusive physical punishment of children by their parents or caregivers is widely regarded as being unacceptable and illegal in most societies.1 Such abuse can lead to juvenile offending, substance abuse, mental health problems, injuries,2 and even death.3 Less clear is whether any physical punishment of children (such as smacking) is acceptable, has adverse health or other consequences, and should be legally permissible.
Smacking has become a topical issue in New Zealand and is polarising individuals within families, workplaces, communities, and the nation. Arguments about the effects of smacking are equivocal,4,5 with two comprehensive reviews of corporal punishment reaching different conclusions; one finding it primarily benefical6 and one primarily detrimental.7
The Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007, which came into force on 22 June 2007, removed parents or caregivers statutory defence to use reasonable force for the purpose of correction except in circumstances to prevent or minimise harm to the child or another person. The purpose of this amended Act is to stop force and associated violence being inflicted on children in the context of correction or discipline, but many antagonists argue that the new law could make parents liable to criminal charges each time they smack their children.
Conversely, proponents of the amended Act argue that “mild assaults (so-called little smacks) will not result in complaints to the police or prosecutions. However serious assaults (such as beatings with implements and objects causing injuries) would no longer be excused as discipline.”8
A late amendment within the Act gave police the discretion not to prosecute complaints against parents where the offence was considered to be inconsequential.9 However, it is unclear what defines inconsequential offending and where on the assault-continuum that police complaints and prosecutions will begin. Many, including Pacific Island parents,10 lawyers,11 and the police themselves,9 have expressed concerns if it is left to police to exercise discretion when deciding who to prosecute in these matters.
In New Zealand population-based surveys, 80%12 and 87%13 of respondents agreed that parents should be able to smack a child with an open hand, consistent with prevalence figures from the USA and elsewhere.5 Indeed, research has demonstrated that most New Zealand parents have smacked or physically punished their children at one time or other14 and approximately half smack their children at least once a week.15
There is a view that physical punishment (often to extreme levels) is the norm for Pacific peoples; a view shared by non-Pacific and Pacific people alike.15,16 It has been argued that the literal interpretation and acceptance of Christianity and the Bible since the arrival of missionaries in the late 18th Century and early 19th Century was instrumental in creating this child discipline culture.17 However, others challenge this perception,17 and there is no empirical evidence that supports the view that Pacific people resident in New Zealand are more accepting of physical punishment.12,13
Indeed, in one of New Zealand’s most recent surveys of punishment, it was reported that Māori and Pacific people were significantly less likely than NZ European/Other respondents to think that it was acceptable to physically discipline children age 0–10 years old.12 Despite this, Pacific (27%) people were significantly more likely to think that disciplining with a wooden spoon or belt should be legally allowable than Māori (10%) or NZ European/Other respondents (15%).12 However, weaknesses in that study’s results were the relatively small number of Pacific participants (n=94), the telephone sampling technique, and the fact that questions focused on attitudes rather than use of physical punishment in a population (rather than parent) survey.
While attitudes towards smacking is widely supported by the New Zealand public, the hitting of children in anger with objects, or around the head, is not. In a targeted sample of 445 adults, when asked “Could there be times when it is OK to hit a child in anger with (i) an object or (ii) around the head?” 88% responded “Definitely no” to the use of an object and 93% responded similarly to hitting around the head.18
These New Zealand views are shared by the Canadian Supreme Court judiciary. In January 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to repeal Section 43 of their Criminal Code that allows parents and school teachers to physically discipline children in their care by using “reasonable” force.19 However, the Supreme court ruled that for corporal punishment to be legally acceptable, it must: (i) involve only minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature; (ii) can only be used against children aged 2-12 years; (iii) and it was unacceptable to hit a child with an object (like a belt or paddle); and, (iv) that blows or slaps to the child’s head was unacceptable.19
The challenge in New Zealand is to define where on the assault-continuum police complaints and prosecutions should begin. It has been suggested that this task should encapsulate public opinion with moral and legislative imperatives.18 Or, as more directly and pragmatically expressed by the Minister of Justice Phil Geoff, to “eliminate child abuse and violence against children but working within the consensus of New Zealand public opinion”.20
To help inform this debate, this paper aims to report the types, frequency, and concordance of punishments employed by parents at various ages for a large cohort of Pacific children resident in New Zealand. This information will provide robust benchmark estimates of disciplinary practices, and allow changes in these practices to be tracked over time following the introduction of the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007.
Background and design—The Pacific Islands Families (PIF) study follows a cohort of Pacific infants born at Middlemore Hospital, South Auckland, between 15 March and 17 December 2000. (Pacific refers to people of South Pacific Islands origin—mostly from Samoa, Tonga, or Cook Islands.) Detailed information about the cohort, and its recruitment and retention procedures, is described elsewhere.21 In brief, all potential participants were selected from births where at least one parent was identified as being of Pacific Islands ethnicity and a New Zealand permanent resident. Information about the study was provided to all potential participants and consent was sought to make a home visit.
Approximately 6 weeks after infants’ births, female interviewers of Pacific Islands ethnicity who were fluent in English and a Pacific Islands language visited mothers in their homes. Once eligibility was confirmed and informed consent obtained, mothers participated in 1-hour interviews concerning family functioning and the health and development of the child. This interview was conducted in the preferred language of the mother.
When the children reached their first, second, and fourth birthdays, all maternal participants were re-contacted and revisited by a female Pacific interviewer. Again, consent was obtained before the interview was conducted in the mother’s preferred language.
At the time of the 1-year and 2-year interviews, mothers were asked to give permission for a male Pacific interviewer to contact and interview the father of the child. If permission and paternal contact details were obtained, then a male Pacific interviewer contacted the father to discuss participation in the study.
Once informed consent was obtained from the father, the interview was carried out in the father’s preferred language. Compared with data available from Statistics New Zealand’s 1996 and 2001 Censuses,22 the inception cohort was broadly representative of the Pacific census figures.21
Measures of child discipline—For all participant and measurement waves, except the 6-week maternal interviews, a modified version of the Parent Behavior Checklist (PBC)23 was used. Fifteen statements were read aloud and participants are asked to complete the sentence with responses: daily/almost daily, weekly, fortnightly, monthly, never/almost never. Two statements were relevant to this paper and included: “I smack my child...”; and “I hit my child with an object (such as a spoon or belt)...”.
Statistical analysis—Descriptive statistics were used to report type and frequency of child punishment used by parents. Concordance between maternal and paternal responses was measured using the Kappa (κ) statistic. Using Landis and Koch’s characterisation,24 κ>0.75 was taken to represent strong agreement, κ<0.40 was taken to represent poor agreement, while 0.40≤κ≤0.75 was taken to represent moderate agreement beyond chance. Symmetry of the discordant observations was compared using McNemar’s test.
All statistical comparisons were undertaken with a Stata version 8.0 (Stata Corporation, College Station, Texas, USA) software program, and α=0.05 was used to define significance.
Ethics—Ethical approval was obtained from the Auckland Branch of the National Ethics Committee, the Royal New Zealand Plunket Society, and the South Auckland Health Clinical Board.
In total, 1708 mothers were identified, 1657 were invited to participate, 1590 (96%) consented to a home visit, and of these, 1477 (93%) were eligible for the PIF Study. Of those eligible, 1376 (93%) mothers giving birth to 1398 infants (of which 680 (49%) were female) participated at the 6-weeks interview.
Mothers’ mean age was 27.9 years (standard deviation 6.2 years) and selected characteristics appear in Table 1. Of the 1376 mothers who participated at the 6-weeks postpartum interview, 1224 (89%) were re-interviewed at 12 months, 1144 (83%) at 2 years, and 1048 (76%) were re-interviewed at 4 years.
Table 1. Characteristics of mothers at the 6-week interview and fathers at the 1-year interview from the Pacific Islands Families (PIF) Birth Cohort Study
*Eligible through the Pacific Islands ethnicity of their partner.
Altogether, 999 of the mothers interviewed at 12 months had partners who met eligibility criteria to act as collateral respondents, of whom 825 (83%) were interviewed. Father’s mean age was 32.1 years (SD 7.3 years) and selected characteristics also appear in Table 1. At the 2-year interview, 938 mothers had eligible partners of whom 757 (81%) consented and completed the interview.
The type and frequency of maternal and paternal physical punishment of children within the cohort at ages 1-year, 2-year, and 4-year postpartum is presented in Table 2. Apparent from Table 2 is the high prevalence and age dependency of physical punishment. Overall, 21.5%, 52.0%, and 77.1% of mothers reported smacking at least monthly their child aged 1-year, 2-years, and 4-years respectively, while 24.4% and 78.4% of fathers smacked at least monthly their child aged 1-year and 2-years.
Many parents also used an object (such as a spoon or belt) to hit their child. Overall, 0.2%, 6.6%, and 24.3% of mothers reported hitting their child with an object at least monthly aged 1-year, 2-years, and 4-years, respectively, while 1.3% and 13.2% of fathers hit their child with an object at least monthly aged 1-year and 2-years.
At age 1 year, smacking and hitting prevelances were comparable between mothers and fathers. However, by 2 years of age, fathers were approximately 1.5 times more likely to smack and 2 times more likely to hit their child with an object at least monthly than mothers.
Table 2. The type and frequency of mothers and fathers physical punishment of children within the cohort at ages 1-year, 2-year, and 4-year postpartum
The concordance in the physical punishment measures used at least monthly between parents is presented in Table 3. There was poor agreement in adopted punishment measured used between parents on children aged 1 year and 2 years. However, there was significant asymmetry, with fathers more likely to employ harsher physical punishment than mothers at both 1 year and 2 years of age.
Table 3. Concordance in the physical punishment measures used at least monthly between parents for children aged 1 years and 2 years
While difficult to directly compare, due to the age-dependant nature of smacking, the prevalence of smacking found in this study was broadly similar to the 80% receiving physical punishment during childhood reported from the predominantly European/Pākehā Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study,14 and the attitudes of 80%12 and 87%13 respondents from New Zealand population surveys reported earlier. However, these results do not support the previously noted findings that Pacific people were significantly less likely than NZ European/Other respondents to think that it was acceptable to physically discipline children,12 nor does it support the commonly accepted view that physical punishment (often to extreme levels) is a ‘norm’ for Pacific people.15,16
In this cohort, 20.5% of mothers and 24.4% of fathers were smacking their Pacific children at 1 year of age compared to NZ European/Other (25%) and Pacific (13%) respondents who found it acceptable to physically discipline children under 2 years. Furthermore, we found 77.1% of mothers of 4-year-old children and 78.4% of fathers of 2-year old children disciplined these children by smacking, considerably higher than the NZ European/Other (66%) and Pacific (31%) respondents who found it acceptable to physically discipline children 2–5 years of age.
The difference between the prevalence estimates found here and those previously reported may reflect the potentially large differences between population attitudes and parental behaviours, and the broad age range used in the survey as opposed to the actual age of discipline used in this study.
Despite the majority public view against the use of an object to hit a child,18 13.2% of 2 year olds in this cohort had already been hit by their father and 24.3% of 4 year olds hit by their mother—a figure not far short of the 27% of Pacific people who think that disciplining with a wooden spoon or belt should be legally allowable reported earlier.12 Perhaps more perplexing is that some children were being physically punished by mothers and fathers with an object as early as 1 year of age—a finding unlikely to be limited to Pacific children.
As physical punishment is age-dependent, it is likely that more children within this cohort will be subject to this form of punishment in the future and, if left unchecked, perhaps approach the 45% experiencing hitting and 6% reporting extreme physical punishment as the most severe form of childhood discipline reported by adult participants from the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study.14
A significant finding in this study was the poor agreement between parents in punishment administered to children aged 1 year and 2 years within families. We could find no other studies directly investigating the concordance between mothers and fathers in disciplining their child. Furthermore, we demonstrated that (at both 1 year and 2 years of age) significantly more fathers administered harsher physical punishment compared to mothers.
While intuitively plausible, our reported behaviour findings appear contrary to the cross-sectional attitudinal results reported elsewhere (where women found it more acceptable than men to physically punish children less than two years, yet men were more accepting than women to physically punish children 6–10 and 11–14 years).12
The lack of agreement in reported behaviour between parents might imply that parents’ punishment choice is frequently based on each individual’s discretion, rather than on a uniform consensus strategy arranged between both parents. Alternatively, one parent may take a more physical stance to punishment while the other uses non-physical or different approaches—a balance perhaps explicitly negotiated or implicitly assumed within the parents’ relationship.
While the Pacific Islands Families Study has many strengths (including being a large representative cohort with a relatively small and non-differential attrition rate to date,21 and using reliable standardised scales for punishment23), it also has weaknesses.
Arguably, the most important limitation is reliance on self-reports of discipline behaviors which may be subject to recall and social desirability biases. That is, respondents may forget or report behaviours in a way they believe to be socially acceptable or appropriate rather than accurate. However, we believe the repeated face-to-face home interviews undertaken by Pacific gender-matched interviewers should minimise these biases, compared to those recognised using other sampling techniques.12
Another important limitation is that smacking is not defined within the Parent Behavior Checklist (PBC) and may be inconsistently interpreted between parents. For instance, some parents may not consider a single light open-handed blow to the back of a child’s hand as smacking whereas others may; some parents may regard close-fisted hitting or punching as smacking whereas others may not. Thus, without a clearly articulated definition, systematic biases may be inherent within our reported estimates of smacking that limits their utility.
Lastly, due to acculturation and assimilation of immigrant Pacific people within New Zealand, it is unlikely that the study results are generalisable to Pacific people resident elsewhere.
Most parents here and elsewhere reported having been smacked and using smacking for child discipline. The majority of the public are accepting of this form of discipline. Based on USA data, it has been argued that a normal range of “spanking” frequencies by non-abusive parents is between 0 to 5.73 times/day, with mean 2.5 times/day.25 Are we conflating smacking with physical violence, injury or abuse or are they separate phenomena?4
If we want to use the current consensus of the New Zealand public to establish boundaries on the assault-continuum,20 then it would seem they are separate and that smacking is acceptable. If this so, then we believe that guidelines for legally acceptable corporal punishment, similar to those issued by the Canadian Supreme Court,19 are necessary in establishing where police complaints and prosecutions should begin. Although we acknowledge that the establishment of guidelines can, in itself, be problematic,18 and that some see describing how to hit a child safely as being absurd26 and sending out the wrong public message.8
Perhaps no form of physical punishment should be tolerated within our society? Certainly, such a move would be politically unpopular and public views would require changing. Introduction of new legislation is, by itself, unlikely to affect such a change. Although commonly cited, the 1979 legal reform in Sweden which banned physical punishment did not affect public attitudes.27
Despite the lack of consistent, strong, compelling evidence for the harmful consequences of smacking, we believe that the administration of this disciplinary measure should be minimised and used sparingly (if at all). However, in our opinion, more widespread efforts to teach parents positive parent management strategies will go considerably farther in promoting optimal child development and health than exhorting parents to stop smacking.
Competing interests: None.
Author information: Philip J Schluter, Professor of Biostatistics1,2; Gerhard Sundborn, Research Fellow in Pacific Health1; Max Abbott, Pro Vice-Chancellor and Dean1; Janis Paterson, Associate Professor and Co-Director, Pacific Islands Families: First Two Years of Life Study1;
Acknowledgements: The Pacific Islands Families (PIF) Study is supported by grants awarded from the Foundation for Science, Research and Technology, the Health Research Council of New Zealand, and the Maurice and Phyllis Paykel Trust. The authors also gratefully acknowledge the families who participated in the study, the Pacific Peoples Advisory Board, and the other members of the PIF research team.
Correspondence: Professor Philip Schluter, Faculty of Health & Environmental Sciences, AUT University, Private Bag 92006, Auckland 1142, New Zealand. Fax: +64 (0)9 921 9877; email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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