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A Modest Proposal | Sep 07, 2005 09:14

GUEST David Haywood


The debate over parental corporal punishment of children has got me thinking. As I understand it, the two sides of the argument go something like this. People like Sue Bradford and the Plunket Society are concerned that Section 59 of the Crimes Act currently allows some parents to get away with abusing their children. Whereas people like Family Integrity perceive the corporal punishment of children to be an important issue to do with freedom of choice, and an essential cultural and religious right.

The debate has become so heated that Carey College in Auckland has even distributed a helpful pamphlet to parents. The pamphlet "A Working Definition of Spanking" gives clear instructions to parents about how to use corporal punishment on their children, including detailed directions of how to safely "spank" them with a "stiff, flexible rod".

Well, it seems to me that the real issue in this debate is what constitutes 'reasonable force'. The problem with smacking or caning a child is that the force administered is dependent on the strength of the parent. For a strong healthy adult it is all too easy to get carried away, and end up doing more harm than was intended. If only there were a solution to this problem, then everyone would be able to agree.

But wait-there is! I've turned my engineer's brain to the issue and come up with the perfect answer. An engineering solution to the problem of reasonable force. Imagine a scientific instrument that could deliver a consistent and carefully calibrated 'dose' of pain to a child. Imagine a scientific instrument that can cause absolutely no physical harm, and will leave your child totally unmarked. Imagine a scientific device that is low-cost enough to be in every home in New Zealand. And imagine no longer-because the technology is already with us. The cattle prod.

The cattle prod has been around for decades and has been shown to be thoroughly safe. It could easily be de-rated for use on children, and could be laboratory-calibrated to make sure that the force it delivers is exactly 'reasonable'-every time! It could even be modified to deliver no more than six punishments in a given hour-just in case the caring parent was tempted by the idea of using a little more juice than was strictly 'reasonable'. With the cattle prod there would be no chance of bruising, no chance of bleeding, and absolutely no chance of accidental death. As the governments of Iran, Libya, and Uzbekistan have shown, it leaves no physical evidence at all.

Of course, the cattle prod would only be part of the punishment. First the crime should be carefully explained to the child. Then the child should be shown the cattle prod, and notified of the time when the punishment is to be administered. And then-after the child had dwelt upon the enormity of its crimes-the cattle prod would be applied with the words: "It's not me that's hurting you-it's the electricity. And it's doing it with love." Following the punishment you would cuddle the child and say a prayer together. In later years, of course, the whole family could laugh together over the times they were cattle prodded-and thank the Lord for delivering them from becoming "unrestrained agents of evil" (Psalm 51:5).

Those of you who have read this far will probably be feeling rather ill by now. The image of torturing a child with a cattle prod is thoroughly nauseating to most of us. But-as I have carefully explained-a cattle prod is actually much safer than smacking or caning your child. Which brings us to the question: if we find the idea of using a cattle prod on children nauseating, then why don't we find it nauseating to smack or cane a child? And the answer is obvious. We're just plain used to the idea of smacking and caning our children-it seems perfectly normal to us.

It reminds me of something a friend from China once told me. He said how disgusted he was when he came to New Zealand and saw people using a handkerchief, and then putting it back in their pockets. "It's like carrying a piece of soiled toilet paper around with you," he said. It was something I'd never even considered before. Although, when I did, I had to agree that-yeah-it was pretty disgusting. As with New Zealand's corporal punishment of children, I just hadn't noticed because I was so used to the idea. Of course, some people might think that beating children is even worse than carrying around a pocketful of snot.

I'll conclude by relating something told to me by an acquaintance involved in early childcare, who has recently returned from visiting Denmark. It turns out that New Zealand is rather famous in Denmark's early childcare circles. Not for our clean and green image, unfortunately, but rather as a watchword for first-world child brutality. Unused to the practice of dishing out biffo to misbehaving children, the Danish think the New Zealand way of raising kids is strange and even cruel.

It's just a suggestion, but I wonder if the Danish might not have a point. Perhaps we should think again about the way that New Zealand treats its children. Just because we're used to smacking and caning doesn't necessarily mean it's an important issue to do with freedom of choice, or an essential cultural right.

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