Deborah Morris-Travers: Lead by example, not with violence

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Supporters of the new Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act, the child discipline law, have consistently argued their case on the basis of evidence and research.

If anything, that side of the debate has been too earnest and intellectually-based and that's why so few people seem to understand what has driven the law change.

The media's refusal to give coverage to the evidence and research supporting the law change is the only reasonable argument for a lack of intellectual rigour in the debate.

For my part, as a child advocate steeped in all the evidence underpinning the law change, and also as a mother of confident, determined - let's say wilful - daughter Mea, it has been interesting reconciling rhetoric with reality.

From the time of Mea's arrival in our lives, we deliberately and consciously made the decision that we would never hit her, whether in anger or any other emotion.

We know positive parenting requires a high level of patience and resourcefulness on our parts but have been, and still are, determined to avoid lazy parenting that resorts to physical violence.

Both of us experienced physical punishment from Christian parents who thought they were doing the right thing. Both of us believe in a different way.

When we discussed the reasons for choosing positive parenting, we identified the international research about the potential harms of hitting children; we agreed that we would prefer to gain respect and maintain authority rather than having Mea fear us; we didn't want to teach her that violence is an expression of love or that it's okay to hit someone to get your own way; and we knew that positive parenting delivers lasting results, instead of the momentary compliance that comes with hitting.

Now, of course, our wilful daughter seems intent on testing our resolve. On a daily basis, we contend with screaming and tantrums, along with the regular declaration "No!" There are the refusals to put on a seat belt, eat dinner, stop putting half-eaten fruit on the carpet, tidy up toys, have a shower, stay in bed and much more. We know that much of the behaviour is consistent with the developmental stage and it will change.

But, in each situation, we're forced to weigh up whether or not it's important and what a proportionate response would be in the circumstances. In many cases we have found that simple strategies work wonders and, through perseverance, we do eventually get our way.

Of course, when weighing up importance, getting a child to wear a seat belt is right up there. It's one of the challenges cited in Sacha Coburn's article on this page on Tuesday. Not only is it a necessity for safety but it is required by law.

A few times now we have sat in the car, stationary, while we persuaded Mea of the need to have her seat belt on before we drove anywhere. Of course, it's tedious to have to sit there and wait but in those moments humour works wonders. It diffuses the tension as well as enabling us to illustrate our point and get Mea to comply. Making a joke of how silly we are for having to sit there seems to work. She's also concerned about a policeman giving us a fine.

And perhaps this example illustrates another important point about parenting. Part of raising children is teaching them a respect for the law. Do we want to teach our children to comply with the law (whether it's our law or a government law), by bullying them? Or are we raising children to comply out of an understanding of the importance of doing so?

Granted, every child responds to a different strategy but children are ultimately seeking approval. They understand far more than one would ever expect from a person so small. Mea is a fully conscious being. In calm moments, it is entirely possible to explain to her what our expectations are and why certain things are important.

Whatever is going on for Mea, it seems she is always better behaved, happier, more relaxed and more responsive if we are warm, involved, playful, and communicative. This is perhaps one of our big challenges as parents. There are always other things that need doing, that preoccupy us and that, frankly, get in the way.

The more we eliminate those, the easier things are.

We use distractions, we have a few simple rules that are consistently enforced and we ensure we follow through with consequences.

As one who works a minimum of 20 hours a week out of financial necessity, while juggling the demands of home life, I know all too well that the pressures are great and the issues are not trifling.

Still, I am convinced we have nothing to fear from the new child discipline law. The law will be subject to a full review in June 2009, at which time we'll see how it is working and whether or not people like Ms Coburn are spending nights in the cells.

In the meantime, police are monitoring the cases brought to their attention and, in December, reported there had been no increase in prosecutions.

Just as it took years for people to always wear their seat belts, it may take time for the new law to take effect. There is a growing number of parents who choose not to hit, and their children are thriving. The two longitudinal studies show 20 per cent of participants in the Dunedin study and 10.8 per cent in Christchurch could not recall, as adults, having ever had physical discipline as children.

Over time, as New Zealanders rely less on physical punishment and norms change so that hitting children is no longer acceptable, it is highly likely that abuse will become less of a problem.

New Zealanders need to give children a chance, and give the new law a chance. I like to think my daughter is growing up in a socially progressive society, intelligent enough to learn new ways to parent, and one that will eventually know it is not okay to hit our smallest and most vulnerable family members.

* Deborah Morris-Travers, mother of a child aged 2 years and 8 months, is a former minister of the Crown who is now an advocacy manager at Barnardos.

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