Most public-opinion surveys on whether parents have the right to spank children ask adults what they think. Children are rarely polled for their views on being hit. Yet of the two groups, clearly children have more of a stake in the issue. One of the few efforts to find out what children think was done in Britain by the charitable group Save the Children Fund. Last year, it interviewed 76 children. Ninety per cent of the children thought hitting a child was wrong.
Nineteen of the children told the interviewers they had been hit on the head or in the face. One child said, "You feel you don't like your parents any more." Another child said, "It makes you feel horrible inside." Many of the children compared parental spanking with being hit by bullies. They said they realized they could not hit back when they were spanked because their parents could hit harder. A 7-year-old girl said parents should be given a prescription warning them not to hit their children on the head "in case they caused brain damage."
A recent British study of 500 families, done by the health department, found that 75 per cent of babies under 12 months had been hit and 25 per cent of 7-year-olds had experienced "severe" physical punishment. One child dies every week in Britain as a result of physical abuse in the home. Sweden, which outlawed physical punishment of children 16 years ago, has had four children die from being beaten in their homes during that time. In Canada, 28 children under age 12 were murdered by their parents in 1999.
And what do parents think of physical "correction"? In Canada, 70 per cent of adults believe that it would be wrong of the government to make it illegal for a parent to strike a child. This week, as a child-custody case gets underway in Ontario, Canadian adults have an opportunity to think again about whether it is right to subject children to corporal punishment.
Seven children from a fundamentalist Christian family from Aylmer, Ont., 25 kilometres east of St. Thomas, are at the centre of a battle between their parents and Ontario's Family and Children's Services, the province's child- protection services. Ontario is seeking to continue its protection order over the children, aged 7 to 15, on the grounds that they are being harmed by their parents. The parents, members of the Church of God, cite religious beliefs for their right to hit their children regularly with switches or belts.
It is a curiosity of Canadian life that religion has so often entered into thedebate surrounding corporal punishment of children. The Ontario court battle has been framed by the children's family and their religious community's pitting of their religious beliefs against secular laws, as a question of the power of government to regulate people's private lives, including how they treat their children.
But the government does not hesitate to ignore religious beliefs when a sick child is not given medical treatment. In 1995, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the right to religious freedom did not take precedence over the child's right to life-saving medical care. It makes no sense that hitting a child with a stick or strap or switch should be viewed as inherently harmless. Why are we comfortable with an interventionist framework when a child is ill, but not when he or she is being physically assaulted? If the argument actually comes down to how close to death a child is, then we are not acting in good faith.
In real life, most people will not intervene unless they are shocked by a parent's behaviour. Parents who can't figure out how to get their children to pay attention other than by giving them one or two slaps on the rear are in no danger from the state, or their neighbours.
It should be remembered in the Ontario case that the reason the family came to the attention of child-protection services in the first place was because the parents refused to allow a child who had been scalded to get medical treatment. Refusing to have a child treated for a burn is cruel. Were the refusal not wrapped up in religious fervour, it would be seen as abuse. Which it is. Mortification of the flesh inflicted on children in the name of religion or anything else is not something the state should allow.
Research has shown that the more authoritarian and aggressive parents are, the more likely they are to produce aggressive children with reduced self-esteem and confidence. The message behind getting hit is that violence is acceptable, especially if the person doing the hitting is bigger and stronger than the one being hit. Is this what we want as a society? I, for one, don't.