I'm not surprised that Christchurch musician and father-of-six Jimmy Mason has continued to play down the actions that led to his conviction for assault last week. But the rest of us really shouldn't encourage him.

When the case first came to light last year, Mason insisted that all he'd done was pull his 4-year-old son's hair and flick his ear. Opponents of the Section 59 amendment rejoiced. He was dubbed the "ear-flick dad"; proof that the Section 59 amendment criminalised good parents.

But it was a little more complicated than that. A witness heard Mason yelling at his son, and then saw him yank the boy's ear and hit him in the face with a closed fist. Mason's version was that he'd given the boy "a bloody good flick" because he was "being a prat". (Which, though I hate to disagree with Family Integrity, is not my idea of "loving fatherly discipline".)

A policewoman who approached Mason as he repeatedly shouted "f ... ing listen" to his children also testified that Mason told her: "I hit the big one in the face and that is what I do and that lady [the witness] can mind her own business."

The jury found him guilty of assault. Mason professed not to know whether it was for the punch or the ear-pull. So did Bob McCoskrie of Family First, who issued a press release claiming the "Case Potentially Highlights Flawed Smacking Law".

How so? Well, "if" Mason had been found guilty of punching his son in the face then the conviction was "completely justified". But, "if" he has been found guilty for an ear-flick in a stressful situation where one child was injured and the other defying his father's order to stay still and safe, then it proves what an ass the anti-smacking law is.

Except it doesn't. It shows just the opposite. Indeed, the law's supporters couldn't have timed it better if they'd tried.

The verdict comes almost two years to the day after the passing of the controversial Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act, which removed the defence of "reasonable force" that let too many parents get away with assaulting their children.

Mason's case has focused attention on the law just as the battle lines are being redrawn for the upcoming citizens' initiated referendum aimed at overturning it.

McCoskrie claims the law's confusing, unpopular and unrealistic; "Parents are struggling to know what's legal and what's not".

They could always ask the dozens of unconfused and respected child agencies which support the law change. Jill Proudfoot, for example, who's part of a child crisis team at Preventing Violence in the Home that's routinely called on by police to attend to families after a domestic violence incident.

No, the law isn't a cure-all for child abuse, it was never meant to be. It's nonsense to claim, as some do, that the law is a failure because it hasn't stopped violence against children overnight. Proudfoot knows as well as anyone the role of poverty and stress, drug and alcohol dependence, and family breakdown and dysfunction. But as she argued in a submission on the proposed law, if the Government was serious about preventing domestic violence and changing attitudes and behaviour, it had to include a strong mandate to not be violent to children; and it couldn't do that while Section 59 was still on the books.

"The sense of entitlement with which adults physically assault children is no different from the sense of entitlement men have when they batter women, but it is more overtly socially and culturally sanctioned."

Proudfoot cites a boy whose father was arrested for beating his mother. He'd been beaten too, "all the time", but his father was never charged for that. Later, when the father was fined for cruelty to their pet dog (he jammed its tail in the door and refused to release it), the boy was incensed that his dad had been punished for beating the dog but not for beating him.

That's how it was before the law change. Children's experiences of assault were "minimised". (And, by the way, says Proudfoot, an ear-pull can be as damaging as a punch in the face, just less obvious.)

No one wants parents to end up in court for a light smack - and the evidence so far is that they're not.

Police say they've noticed little change since the law was passed in May 2007, parents aren't being criminalised for "inconsequential" incidents, and there's evidence of growing public acceptance, according to a 2008 UMR survey.

But the much bigger issue for those who profess to care about the incidence of child abuse in this country is how we can tolerate some forms of violence against children, and not others.

There's no doubt that the campaign to overturn the law gives permission to parents to keep hitting their children.

And that's not helpful for those who are trying to forge a better way - like the Rev Dr Hone Kaa, who's part of a child advocacy group determined to address Maori child abuse and maltreatment.

"We are actually asking our people to ... make a major mind shift about the beliefs of parenting ..."

"We believe that smacking is simply another expression of violence against Maori children. If we can break the habit that our whanau have of hitting children, then more serious forms of abuse and maltreatment will also reduce."

Why would anyone want to argue against that?