New Zealand parents have turned away from smacking their children frequently as the country prepares to vote on whether the practice should stay a criminal offence.

Four surveys of parents of 4-year-old children by Waikato University psychologists Jane and James Ritchie, from 1963 to 1997, found that about half of all parents throughout those four decades smacked their children at least once a week.

But a Weekend Herald-DigiPoll survey, which put the same questions this month to 200 parents of 4-year-olds, has found that just 9 per cent of mothers and 8 per cent of fathers now smack their children that often.

About two-thirds of both mothers and fathers still smack at least occasionally, despite the 2007 law promoted by Green MP Sue Bradford that banned using force against children for the purpose of "correction".

But the number who never smack, which stayed below 10 per cent for four decades, has leaped to 39 per cent of mothers and 33 per cent of fathers.

Despite this, in line with other recent polls, a massive 85.4 per cent still plan to vote "No" on the referendum question, "Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?"

Only 10.8 per cent plan to vote "Yes", with 3.8 per cent undecided.

More than 300,000 people signed a petition for the non-binding referendum after Labour and National combined to pass Ms Bradford's amendment to the Crimes Act two years ago. Voting papers for the $9 million postal vote will go out from the end of next week and must be returned by August 21.

Prime Minister John Key has said that, regardless of the referendum vote, he would change the new law only if it was not working. He said last month that he was "satisfied that the law is working".

He said yesterday in a written comment on the Herald poll: "I have given my assurance to Kiwi parents that I will move to change the law if it's not working. I stand by that.

"I'm not going to pre-judge the outcome of the referendum - let voters have their say and then I'll have a look at the result."

Asked last month what he would do if the vote was strongly No, he said there was "every risk for a postal vote that there will be a very low turnout".

However, the Herald poll has found that 78.5 per cent of the parents questioned plan to vote. Only 14 per cent say they will not vote, and 7 per cent are unsure.

Parents are split down the middle on whether the referendum question is clear. Just over half (51.5 per cent) say it is, 45 per cent say it isn't and 3 per cent are unsure.

The Ritchies' pioneering surveys from the 1960s to the 1990s were based on face-to-face interviews covering a wide range of child-rearing practices with 200 parents of 4-year-olds in each decade, mainly found through kindergartens in the Hamilton area.

The Weekend Herald put eight of the Ritchies' 200 original questions by phone to 100 mothers and 100 fathers of 4-year-olds identified through DigiPoll's nationwide database of randomly selected New Zealanders.

The poll has also found a sharp increase in the popularity of "time-out" and other forms of disciplining children by isolation, such as sending them to their rooms.

Ms Bradford was overwhelmed yesterday when told that the popularity of smacking had tumbled.

"Oh, wow, isn't that fantastic!" she said. "I just think that's a fantastic sign of hope for the future of our nation that there has been such a dramatic shift in the last 12 years."

But Bob McCoskrie of Family First, a leader of the campaign for a "No" vote in the referendum, said parents had always used a range of discipline techniques to suit different children at different ages.

"This research reassures me that parents are using smacking in an occasional and responsible way, and at the same time they don't think parents should be criminalised for it."


Mothers and fathers of four-year-olds answer questions from Waikato University researchers Jane and Jim Ritchie (1963-1997) and Herald Digipoll (2009).


Question 1: How often do you smack your 4-year-old?
Question 2: What form of punishment do you use most often
Question 3: How often do you give your 4-year-old a special treat, such as a present or an outing, as a reward for good behaviour?

"Time out" has become New Zealand parents' most popular form of discipline, apparently reflecting the influence of television "Supernanny" Jo Frost.

Two-thirds of 200 parents of 4-year-olds surveyed by DigiPoll for the Weekend Herald say the form of punishment they use most often is placing their child into isolation, either in their room or on the "naughty mat". This is a huge change from previous surveys of parents of 4-year-olds, carried out by Waikato University psychologists Jane and James Ritchie from the 1960s to the 1990s, which found the form of punishment used most often in three out of the four decades was simply scolding and growling.

Physical punishment such as smacking was used most often by about a fifth of parents from the 1960s to the 1980s, but plunged dramatically to zero in the Ritchies' last survey in 1997.

The new DigiPoll survey shows a slight increase since then, with 2 per cent of mothers and 6 per cent of fathers now saying they use physical punishment more often than any other kind of punishment. But at the same time, the number of parents saying they smack their 4-year-olds at least once a week has collapsed from 54 per cent in 1997 to just 9 per cent of mothers and 8 per cent of fathers.

The poll also shows a corresponding increase in the use of rewards for good behaviour at least "sometimes" - up from 57 per cent in the 1960s to 67 per cent in the 70s, 86 per cent in the 80s, 90 per cent in the 90s and 95 per cent today.

Professor Jane Ritchie, now a semi-retired teaching fellow at Waikato University, said parents had clearly learned the principles of rewarding good behaviour and effectively punishing bad behaviour.

"We found in the 60s that mothers were absolutely opposed to anything positive - they called that bribery," she said. "They didn't have that idea of reinforcement which I think they do now, I think because of those nanny programmes."

She credited British "Supernanny" Jo Frost for the popularity of "time out".

The poll is in many ways a vindication of the Ritchies' lifelong advocacy of non-physical forms of discipline. They were abused for years after 1978 when they first proposed repealing section 59 of the Crimes Act, which then allowed parents and teachers to use reasonable force "by way of correction" of a child.

The evidence suggests that the biggest shift in opinion came between the Ritchies' last survey in 1997, when only 9 per cent of parents had never smacked, and 2004, when a Gravitas survey found that 33 per cent had never smacked.

Today's Weekend Herald survey shows that 36 per cent of today's parents of 4-year-olds have never smacked, only a slight increase since the 2007 Sue Bradford law banning physical force against children for "correction".

All surveys may overstate the numbers who never smack because those who do smack may be less willing to take part in surveys on the issue, and those who do take part may be better educated and more involved in their children's education.

The Ritchies' surveys were based on voluntary participation by parents of 4-year-olds at kindergartens, mainly around Hamilton.

The Weekend Herald poll was taken from DigiPoll's random sample of New Zealanders with landlines, but did not reach those without phones or with cellphones only. Seventy per cent of those approached agreed to take part.

Two-thirds of the parents of 4-year-olds who took part were aged 30 to 39.

Parents with degrees or diplomas made up 51 per cent of those who took part compared with 31 per cent of all people aged 30 to 39 in the 2006 Census.

The poll was taken between July 8 and 17 and has a margin of error of 6.9 per cent.


Question 4: How long was your child breastfed?
Question 5: How often did you spend a night or more apart from your child in the first 2 years?

Breastfeeding has dropped for the first time in 50 years as more mothers go back to work soon after having their babies.

Surveys of mothers of 4-year-olds by psychologists Jane and James Ritchie found a steep rise in the proportion of mothers breastfeeding for at least six months over four decades, from 20 per cent in the 1960s to 45 per cent in the 70s, 49 per cent in the 80s and 71 per cent in 1997.

But the number has slipped to 61 per cent in today's Herald-DigiPoll survey.

The five surveys also chart a sharp decline over the past two or three generations in the proportion of mothers who never spent a night apart from their baby in its first two years - down from an overwhelming 93 per cent in 1963 to 45 per cent in 1997 and 40 per cent today.

Professor Jane Ritchie said both changes reflected an historic shift of mothers into paid work.

"When we did our first survey in the 1960s, when we came across one or two working mothers we just dropped them - they just didn't come under our definition of a mother," she said.

Professor Ritchie shared the prevailing philosophy that children's wellbeing depended on a close and constant attachment to their mothers.

"I was the mother whom we described in one of our books, some years later, as the woman who felt guilty when she left her young baby for an hour to go to the dentist," she said.

That changed just 14 years later when the Ritchies did their second survey in 1977. By then 34 per cent of the mothers were in paid work, rising to 45 per cent in 1987 and 57 per cent in 1997.

The 1997 figure appears to have been an overestimate, as Census figures show only 48 per cent of all mothers were in paid work in 1996, rising to 56 per cent in 2006.

Today's Herald survey found 54 per cent of mothers of 4-year-olds in paid work.

Plunket Society clinical manager Angela Baldwin confirmed that breastfeeding rates had "plateaued" in the last 10 years, with a "worrying" decline for Pacific mothers.

Plunket figures show only a quarter of mothers feed their babies solely on breastmilk to six months - 46 per cent of European mothers, 26 per cent of Asians, 18 per cent of Pacific and 17 per cent of Maori mothers.

Women's Health Action baby-friendly workplace co-ordinator Cathie Walsh said mothers returning to work within a year of giving birth had jumped from 20 per cent to 37 per cent in the past decade.

Question 6: When you are both there, who disciplines your 4-year-old?

Mothers and fathers now share discipline equally, when both are present, for the first time since surveys of New Zealand child rearing began.

Each partner has always thought they do a bigger share of the disciplining than their partners think, according to every survey by Jane and James Ritchie from 1963 to 1997 and again in today's Herald-DigiPoll survey.

In the latest poll, 44 per cent of mothers but only 15 per cent of fathers think mum usually disciplines the children when both parents are present.

Conversely, only 6 per cent of the mothers, but 26 per cent of the fathers, think dad does more disciplining.

But at least half of both genders, for the first time since the surveys began in 1963, say mum and dad share the discipline equally when both are present.

Exactly 50 per cent of mothers and 59 per cent of fathers ticked the "both equal" option.

Professor Jane Ritchie said the change reflected both more mothers going out to work and a general ideological shift towards equal parenting.

"Over the years there has been immense social change in the amount of father involvement in child rearing," she said.

"In the 1960s you rarely saw a father pushing a pram. Now you can't walk down the street without seeing a father with a child in a backpack or a frontpack or pushing a pram."

Dr Ritchie told a conference in 1999 that "it simply never occurred to us to interview fathers as well as mothers" for the first survey in 1963. But there was an enormous change by the second survey in 1977.

"Fathers in the 70s were definitely more involved with helping with the child," she said. "More than three-quarters helped regularly, compared to only a third in the 60s."

The number of fathers saying they helped "a lot" when their child was a baby rose from 30 per cent in 1977 to 58 per cent a decade later and 53 per cent in the Ritchies' last survey in 1997.