The Society for the Promotion of Reformation in Government
Christian Discipline in the Home
A Response to the Office of Law Reform’s consultation paper:
Physical punishment in the home - thinking about the issues, looking at the evidence
(2) About SPRING
(3) The Christian View of Corporal Punishment
(4) Response to Consultation Questions
(1) Introduction [Top]
The Northern Ireland Executive is considering proposals to legally restrict or outlaw the smacking of children by parents as means of discipline in the home. The Office of Law Reform, which has reported on the issue, appears to be committed to changing the law, but the Executive has stated that it will decide on the basis of responses received to public consultation.
This is a response by the Society for the Promotion of Reformation in Government (SPRING) to the Office of Law Reform’s consultation paper entitled Physical punishment in the home – thinking about the issues, looking at the evidence (September 2001).
About SPRING [Top]
SPRING is a society, formed in 1998, and based in Northern Ireland, which seeks to publicise and promote the implications of the Christian faith for society, including the role and duties of civil government, the true moral basis of the law, and the responsibilities of citizens.
SPRING has published a range of articles on issues of contemporary moral and social relevance, including corporal punishment. Each article presents a distinctively Christian view, including the biblical basis for that view, and seeks to answer common misunderstandings and objections. The Society’s paper on Corporal Punishment is appended to this document.
The Society supports and defends the appropriate physical punishment of children in the home as the duty of every Christian parent, provided it is carried out in the context of Christian love, instruction and forgiveness.
The Christian View of Corporal Punishment [Top]
Christians believe, on the authority of the Word of God, that:
- It is the duty of children to respect and obey their parents.
- There is a natural inclination in the heart of every child to do wrong.
- Love for children demands adequate and effective discipline to restrain wrongdoing and teach what is right.
- Adequate and effective discipline is not confined to, but should include, corporal punishment.
- Adequately disciplined children are better members of society, while the failure to discipline children results in patterns of behaviour that collectively and eventually undermine social order.
It must be emphasised that effective corporal punishment must exist within the context of other aspects of correction. Chief among these are a consistent parental example, deliberate instruction (in the form of guidance, encouragement and reproof), and conspicuous affection (especially kindness and forgiveness).
It is in this light that we address the questions posed in the consultation document.
Response to Consultation Questions [Top]
Chapter 1: What is this Consultation About?
What is the goal of effective discipline of children?
SPRING believes that the goal of effective discipline of children is:
- To teach children that we are answerable to higher authorities for our actions, whether in the family, in employment, or in the state, and that ultimately we are all answerable to God.
- To teach children the difference between right and wrong and the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.
- To teach children that wrong actions have consequences, for themselves and others.
- To promote responsibility, honesty, integrity and consideration for others.
Fundamental to this is a proper assessment of human nature. There is a natural rebellion in the heart of a child. Children, like their parents, do not possess innate goodness. On the contrary they continually tend to wickedness; but, properly taught and adequately disciplined they will generally carry into adulthood the principles and standards instilled by their upbringing.
- What are the ways in which this goal is achieved?
Discipline is achieved by:
- Regular and consistent instruction regarding right and wrong.
- Warning and rebuke about the consequences of improper behaviour.
- A good example set by parents and others.
- A loving and affectionate relationship that demonstrates to the child that the best interests of the child are paramount.
- Restraint and physical correction when wrongdoing becomes serious or persistent.
Mere instruction alone is insufficient as maturity is required to enable people to reason sufficiently from actions to consequences. The young child must learn from the immediate results of its wrongdoing (through smacking for example) that the action is wrong and brings unpleasant consequences. Equally, physical correction alone is insufficient, as it has no context by which the child may evaluate its actions. All the elements must be present, and any physical correction must be measured, proportionate to the offence, and adjusted to the sex, age and capacity of the child.
- In light of the evidence and your experience, do you think that physical punishment by parents is an effective form of discipline?
YES. Research studies are not always objective and often reinforce the prejudice of the researcher. Scientific studies often conflict in their conclusions, reflecting the complexity of the many variables and the difficulty of isolating the one under scrutiny. Personal experience and that of observing others demonstrates not only that discipline moulds the character of a child and hence the adult, but that those families which employ physical correction for serious and persistent offences generally produce children and adults with a strong sense of right and wrong and a concern for integrity and justice. Of course physical punishment that is excessive or that is devoid of love or instruction may be detrimental, but it is the absence of the latter rather than the presence of the former that is the real problem in most instances.
The advantage of physical correction is its immediacy. The child can connect its action to the consequences even when the nature of the action is poorly understood. The correction may be painful, physically and emotionally, but it is soon over and the relationship is quickly restored.
It is quite incorrect to imagine that physical punishment merely causes children to avoid punishment while learning nothing about right and wrong. That is to ignore the role of instruction, and to assume the inability of children to comprehend the parental purpose in administering the punishment. Any adult who can remember his childhood will recall that from the earliest age he understood that he was being punished because he had done wrong.
- In light of the evidence and your experience, do you think that physical punishment by parents is an acceptable form of discipline?
YES. Corporal punishment does not cause more than momentary pain and results in no lasting injurious effects. Provided children feel that they are treated fairly in relation to the seriousness of the offence and in relation to other children, no emotional damage is done. The experience of countless individuals supports this. Concerns about physical correction inevitably arise when the degree of it is severe, or it is administered unjustly. Many of us have had parents who always disciplined us fairly and proportionately and for whom we have only admiration and respect.
Contrary to the reasoning of the consultation paper, extreme cases or notorious miscarriages of justice are a poor basis on which to outlaw perfectly legitimate practices that have been tried and proved over many generations and are widely practised by perfectly sensible citizens.
The slander that somehow severe punishment and child abuse are the natural and inevitable extension of Christian modes of physical correction, and that corporal punishment leads to aggression and violent behaviour, is quite disingenuous. Countless Christian families prove quite the opposite.
- If you are a parent, please tell us about the people or organisations who have been most helpful to you in helping you deal with any discipline problems you have faced?
By far the most useful sources of help have been our own parents, other parents of our own age, and the guidance provided by the Christian Scriptures and Christian ministers.
- In your view, what services (whether provided by the private, public or voluntary sectors) are or would be most useful in helping parents to deal effectively with discipline issues?
Those agencies and individuals who reject the fundamental basis of Christian discipline, including the innate tendency of the human heart to evil, and the necessity of physical correction, are clearly incompetent to guide Christians in the matter. By far the most useful service is that rendered by the Christian Church and the Christian community with its various endeavours to support families in the spiritual and moral upbringing of their children.
Chapter 2: The Law at Present in Northern Ireland
- Do you have any comments about [the consultation report’s] analysis of the requirements of international human rights law?
- The trend to progressively remove physical correction in every shape or form from every field of life is deeply concerning to Christians, and ought to be of concern to society. It is based on unverified assumptions that fail to distinguish child abuse from reasonable and moderate physical correction, and that imply – irrationally – that reasonable and moderate physical correction is the cause of greater violence and disorder in society. Rather it is the absence of proper standards, morals, instruction, frameworks, examples and restraints that have led to these evils, and removing yet more restraints will only exacerbate the situation. What is worse, removing them in the most important place, the home, can only accelerate the decline.
- The notion that alternative forms of discipline are more effective requires a high view of human nature that is belied by reality and runs contrary to the Christian faith.
- Political correctness and sentimentality are no substitute for rational argument, and the UN is not immune from succumbing to such an inadequate rationale.
- Just recently the UK government has decided that there is no need to change the law in this area. The Northern Ireland Executive should recognise the wisdom of this decision.
Chapter 3: The Law in Other Countries
Chapter 4: Reform for Northern Ireland
- Does this chapter contain the full range of law reform options open to us?
NO. The implication is that reform is essential and inevitable. There is no need to change the law. It already provides, and has been legally acknowledged to provide, adequate protection.
- Do you agree with the assessment of the Office of Law Reform that further reform in addition to the limited amendment of the defence of reasonable chastisement in the criminal law in R v H is needed to bring us in Northern Ireland into line with our human rights and equality regulations?
NO. The existing state of the law now adequately protects children from excessive punishment. There is no legal compulsion to adopt international aspirations that have not been justified and that would criminalize reasonable physical chastisement as commonly practised in many homes.
- Which option for reform of the defence of reasonable chastisement (removing or limiting the defence) do you think represents the best way forward?
NEITHER. Removing the defence effectively prevents reasonable and unobjectionable physical correction. Limiting it beyond that which is already provided in the law only increases the degree of interpretation required and the opportunity for uncertainty and confusion.
- If you think that limiting the defence represents the best way forward ...
- In your view, is there merit in including a statement of rights and responsibilities of the type outlined in this chapter in our family law?
NO. Statements of parental rights and responsibilities add no protection to the child, and if they have only educational value, with no legal force or penalty, they have no place in the law. They would however provide a lever for adding legal force in the future, and if this is the intention it would be better to be honest about it now. Parents understand their responsibilities well. It is not a lack of understanding of responsibilities that leads to abuses, but the sheer selfishness and perversity of individuals. People who ignore the existing law and recognised acceptable standards of behaviour are unlikely to be much influenced by aspirational laws that carry no penalty.
- If so ...
Not applicable (questions 6 to 8).
Chapter 5: Equality Impact Assessment, TSN & Regulatory Impact
- Do you agree that the main equality impacts of this issue are on children and those with dependents?
See Q6 below.
- Do you have any comments on the other equality impacts identified or anticipated?
See Q6 below.
- Are there, in your view, any further equality impacts which have not been identified?
YES. There is the major religious inequality by which Christian parents who genuinely hold the faith standards evident in this response will be pilloried as uncivilised child abusers; and who, if they remain faithful to their beliefs and what they understand to be in the very best interests of their children, will be exposed not only to public contempt, but to civil penalties, imprisonment, and the forced break-up of their families.
- In relation to what objectives is there a need to promote equality of opportunity in relation to physical punishment?
See Q6 below.
- In order to mitigate the equality impacts identified … which of these options do you think has a role to play? [Four options are: abolishing reasonable chastisement defence; limiting same; including statement of parental rights and responsibilities; and parenting programmes.]
See Q6 below.
- Would you consider any other ways of mitigating the equality impacts of physical punishment or better promoting equality of opportunity?
This entire chapter suffers from a fundamental failure to address a very obvious issue. Children are not adults and that in itself creates certain inequalities that are not only unavoidable, but positively beneficial. We do not regard it as an inequality that children cannot obtain driving licenses or firearm certificates or marriage licenses. We do not consider it wise that they should be able to smoke or drink at will as adults do. Their youth and immaturity require differences in their treatment that are for the good of themselves and others. To assume that the experience of receiving physical punishment by children is an “inequality” that must be overcome, is to beg the fundamental question, and to assume that which is supposedly subject to public comment and consultation. The failure to acknowledge and analyse this elementary observation must surely reflect on either the intellectual capacity or the integrity of the authors.
There is a fundamental relationship between parents and children that is rightly full of inequality. There is the inequality of the enormous responsibility that the parents have for the children. There is the inequality of the obedience the children owe to the parents. There is the inequality of the knowledge and experience that the parents possess in comparison to the children. There is the inequality of the physical, mental and spiritual immaturity of the children in comparison to the parents. It is precisely because of these necessary and, of course, mutually enriching inequalities that parents who love their children take account of them and physically restrain their children’s excesses.
- Please indicate any additional sources of data or research on physical punishment which could be used to develop the knowledge base and monitor any reform of the law?
A study of the experience and social impact of Christian congregations and communities which practise corporal punishment, in comparison with those who do not, would be useful. It would of course be exceedingly difficult to isolate the subject from other variables to which the subject is inextricably linked. That, of course, is the reason why existing studies are not a reliable basis on which to make law.
The anti-smacking agenda is predicated upon a number of false assumptions:
- "Smacking doesn’t work." Experience and common sense say that in the proper context it does. Smacking restrains improper behaviour and it reinforces instruction regarding right and wrong.
- "Smacking encourages violence as means of getting our way." This ignores the special relationship between adults and children and the distinct purpose and nature of smacking, which bear no resemblance to acts of violence between adults.
- "Smacking damages children." In fact smacking is the least emotionally disturbing of all means of correction, as its effects are quickly over. Other forms of restraint require emotional and psychological manipulation and deprivations that are extended in time, breed resentments, and are open to the same charge of encouraging such manipulative behaviour in adulthood.
The truth is that physical punishment of children is the God-given means, alongside Christian instruction, loving affection and a godly example, of raising children to His glory and the good of human society.
Faithful Christians will continue to physically discipline their children, no matter what the law says. However limited the reform of the law may be at this point, it is but a step to the criminalisation of the most law-abiding and responsible citizens in our society.
SPRING urges most strongly that no change is made to the existing law.
SPRING January 2002
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