Parental discipline

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 May, 2007, 12:00am

How we treat one another reveals how responsible our society is. Children are as much a part of the community as adults yet, in many parts of the world - Hong Kong included - they are generally subjected to physical force if they step out of line. This is despite such punishment being frowned upon in schools and the judicial system in the developed world. Nor, in our context, is this a case of Asian values; rather, it is one of simple decency and respect.

A survey released last month by the Hong Kong group Against Child Abuse found that 87 per cent of the 366 parents questioned admitted having smacked or otherwise physically dealt with their children for misdemeanors. But 49 per cent of them and 74 per cent of 356 students surveyed believed that such punishment should be outlawed through legislation.

Such views were not shared by New Zealanders questioned on the matter this year; 88 per cent of the 1,000 people surveyed believed that parents had a right to smack their children. Nonetheless, New Zealand on Tuesday joined the growing list of nations that have made it illegal for parents to mete out such punishment. Lawmakers passed the bill by 113 votes to eight, after two years of often acrimonious public debate. The opposition in parliament was convinced to vote in favour after the wording was changed so police would have discretionary power to prosecute, depending on how serious the abuse was determined to be.

I admit to having spanked my now-teenage children when they were young. A decade ago, the world was generally a different place, as were my values. In my own generation, as a child in Australia, far worse than a smack on the bottom or hand was meted out to me by my father and school principal. In my parents' generation, what was known as 'a thrashing' with a leather belt or a cane was the norm if a child stepped out of line. I shudder to think what happened in my grandparents' time and before.

The changing attitudes are about rights - and, in line with today's thinking in the developed world, I now know there are better ways to discipline a child than through physically punitive means. But, while I agree parents who overstep the mark should be told what they are doing is wrong, laws are not the way to do it.

Policing such a law will be difficult, given that spanking generally goes on in the privacy of family homes. Determining just how hard a smack constitutes an infringement of the law will be impossible.

Australia is heading down the right path. Lawmakers recently approved the spending of A$2.3 million (HK$14.9 million) on an education campaign to teach parents the rights and wrongs of disciplining their children.

Parent educator Michael Grose is in the vanguard in Australia of teaching better ways to deal with errant children. The teacher and author of books such as Parenting Ideas said from his Melbourne office yesterday that such methods included good use of language, removing children from a particular setting or taking something away from them. 'Effective discipline is based on consistency rather than severity,' Mr Grose said. Children were exposed to more ideas than they had once been, now had rights and expected to be treated with dignity, he explained. They were a lot tougher to deal with than ever before, and parents had to be taught smarter ways to discipline them.

Spying on parents and fining or jailing them for abusing laws will not do this. They will only learn to treat their offspring more reasonably by being taught what is best through government and school campaigns, and shifting societal values.

The landmark case this week of a tutorial centre teacher being given a suspended jail term - for hitting a girl of nine hundreds of times with a wooden ruler - after the government appealed against the original $2,000 fine is a good starting point for Hong Kong. This was a legal matter because it was about child abuse; but it sends out a strong message that should now be followed up. Spending some of the billions of dollars of government surplus on an education campaign would be one way.

Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor