Saturday, 1 August 2009

Should parents who smack be considered criminals?

My voting papers arrived yesterday. The national postal referendum asks the question:
Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
Much has been written about this so far. Those who have argued "no" I think have put up a good case. The vote NO site explains the issues well and has some nasty stories concerning families who have be negatively affected by the previous law change.

The Yes vote campaign have done less well as their presentations have been disingenuous rather than informative. To constantly use the term "hit" in preference to "smack" intentionally muddies the waters. To talk about parents punching their children, or hitting in anger is irrelevant as their opponents agree with them that this is inappropriate.

Referencing the statements of various organisations seems reasonable, until one realises that many members of any organisation disagree with official positions. In fact organisations should be very careful about supporting any cause outside their field, and even at times inside their field; but that is another post.

Of course one could argue that I find those who I agree with reasonable and those I disagree with unreasonable. There is probably some truth to that, but I am fully capable of dismissing poor arguments that favour ideas actually I agree with; doing so is important as poor arguments are detrimental to good causes.

But what I really wanted to focus on is what the question actually asks and an appropriate Christian response.

If one answers "yes" to the referendum question then they are saying
A smack as part of good parental correction should be a criminal offence.
If you are tempted to answer yes, do you think that parents who use corporal punishment should be criminals? It is not so important whether you would choose to smack in answering this question, rather whether you think that such behaviour should be considered criminal. Are you willing to label a large number of parents criminals because they smack? And it does not matter whether you think they will or will not be prosecuted, it matters what they are considered.

There are things I do not choose to do, but I don't think they are criminal. There are things that I consider morally wrong but I do not want them criminalised. I think smoking is a minor moral failing, but not one that should be criminal. I think drunkenness is a moderate moral failing, but I don't think police should be allowed to arrest men passed out on their couch at home. I think laziness is a significant moral failing, but I don't want laws that fine people who don't pull their weight.

If you answer "no" to the referendum question then you are saying
A smack as part of good parental correction should not be a criminal offence.
And many who would choose never to smack their children can reasonably hold this position. Consider the position of those who do smack. Many of them do so because they think it effective. I think a good case can be made that parents should smack in many situations. Let's assume that smacking is the most appropriate punishment in many situations to maximise the chances that one's child grows up well behaved and well adjusted. Even if this were the case pro-smackers would not argue that parents who refuse to smack their children should be considered criminals. Pro-smackers may think them unwise, but to enforce such behaviour through legal methods is inappropriate.

How should Christians approach this referendum?

I think the Bible argues for corporal punishment. This is seen in several proverbs (Proverbs 13:24; 19:18; 22:15; 23:13–14; 29:15, 17). The use of physical discipline as punishment of adults in the Mosaic Law would support this. And the incomprehensible danger of things such as roads and water would argue that smacking is the most appropriate form of discipline for the very young. Reasoning doesn't work.

However I think another passage is also appropriate. James says
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. (James 3)
James warns us that teaching others means facing a stricter judgment by God. The reason is we stumble in our speech. It is one thing to have incorrect opinions, it is another to teach others wrong doctrine. If we kid ourselves this has negative consequences on our behaviour, but if we mislead others then the damage is much greater. This applies to everyone, including what I write here.

While voting is not teaching, I think the principle is similar. Voting in a democracy affects others. It may only have a small effect, but we are responsible for whether we vote, how we vote, and who we vote for. And God holds us responsible for the same. Thus we should pray about voting, and vote with a humble attitude.

We see from above that voting "yes" is saying that one thinks smacking should make a parent a criminal. If you oppose smacking, do you think it so bad that the state should have the right to intervene in the lives of families where it occurs? If I were to smack my child in a controlled manner as a method of teaching them not to step onto the road, do you think that government officials should be allowed effect changes in my family as they see fit?

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