Sacha Coburn: Smack on the hand worth time in jail

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I agree with Bob McCoskrie and Larry Baldock. Eight words which churn my stomach as I write them. When left-leaning, social liberals like me are forced to align with the fundies speaking in tongues and organising petitions, you know our little country at the bottom of the world has gone mad.

I want to smack my daughter. At least twice today I'm likely to threaten it and may even make meaningful preparations to carry it out. Send her to her room. Get the wooden spoon out of the drawer. Enough to be arrested for an attempted smack, I'd have thought. Is it wrong to fantasise about a night in the lock-up?

"You mean that in solitary I'd be by myself for 23 hours in a row?"

Smacking my son was a parenting strategy of last resort and was immediately effective when dealing with defiance and dangerous situations. I've never smacked in anger and never without issuing a final warning first. I'm a text-book smacker. Pin-up girl has a certain ring to it.

But now, with my precious Portia, aged 2 years 8 months, my tool box is looking a little empty.

"No," she says. "I won't put my seat belt back on." Try reasoning, Aunty Sue B suggests. "If we crash, you'll get hurt."

"No, I didn't."

Try praising the good behaviour, says Aunty Cindy K.

"Mummy loves it when you wear your seatbelt."

"No! I love Daddy!"

Wait out the bad behaviour, advises Aunty Dianne L.

Good idea until my phone rings: "Hello Sacha, are you coming to get your son from school today? It's 5.30pm and the cleaners are going home."

"Not yet," I reply. "Just wearing Portia down, should be there by midnight."

Scare her, suggests my guardian demon.

"If you don't put it back on, tonight I'll close your bedroom door and leave the light off." Cue screaming, but still no seat belt. What kind of parental monster uses fear of the dark as a legitimate tool?

The problem for me is that I love the law and the democratic process. As a lawyer, I understand the benefits of obeying the law and the potential consequences of disregarding it. I want to parent within the law and I want to be able to use smacking as one of many parenting tools.

I'm a bloody good parent; well-read, patient, on the Board of Trustees even. I know that clothes driers are for clothes only and that I shouldn't leave my child with the man next door who's on bail awaiting trial for manslaughter. I understand the food pyramid and surely I get brownie points with the Greens for breastfeeding both babies past 12 months.

I don't believe smacking is for every parent or every child. I don't believe that it's an effective tool once children get beyond four or five. I wouldn't insist that you smack your child, but I don't believe Parliament fixes anything by taking away my right to smack mine.

Sue Bradford told us that we had to stop treating our children as property. They are people too, with their own minds and their own rights. Illuminating stuff. But the police officer who pulled me over and asked why my child was wandering willy-nilly around the backseat didn't buy it. I am apparently totally responsible for her well-being and behaviour, but not to be trusted when it comes to making parenting decisions about how to develop her sense of right and wrong.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the whole smacking debate is the lack of intellectual rigour evident on both sides of the issue. To continue the rhetoric about child abuse and smacking having any casual link is absurd - as all of us who were smacked-not-beaten as children can attest. And to suggest on the other hand that God gave us the right to smack is equally offensive - he also okayed some other pretty dodgy ideas.

The obvious victims remain. Children who are violently abused in their homes are no more protected than they were before the law change. But my own daughter is undoubtedly a victim too and our whole family suffers the consequences of her strong sense of self-above-all-else.

She has, in the past six months, learned that there are few sanctions I can impose on her that are meaningful enough to deter her from her intended course of action. She knows that if she screams loudly and for long enough she might not get her way but, by golly, there'll be a flurry of action around her. In short, she has learnt that behaving badly works.

How ironic if, in years to come, the lack of corrective smacking in childhood is raised in mitigation of criminal offending.

* Sacha Coburn is a Christchurch businesswoman, lawyer and mother.

- NZ Herald

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