There is something very creepy about this smacking referendum now arriving in the mail. What exactly do the citizens behind this initiative, men like Bob McCoskrie, mean by "good parental correction"?

Their publicity pretends they mean nothing more than the smack that an anxious or annoyed parent might use to stop or prevent dangerous or offensive behaviour. But that can't be all they want because the law now expressly permits the use of parental force for exactly those purposes.

They say the new law is not clear, that parents are confused. If so, the confusion is largely their work. The law is clear. Read it:

"Every parent of a child, and every person in the place of a parent of a child, is justified in using force if the force used is reasonable in the circumstances and is for the purpose of:

a) preventing or minimising harm to the child or another person; or

b) preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in conduct that amounts to a criminal offence; or

c) preventing the child from engaging or continuing to engage in offensive or disruptive behaviour; or

d) performing the normal daily tasks that are incidental to good care and parenting."

That just about covers the gamut of infant misbehaviour, doesn't it? All the commonly cited scenarios are there.

Could a parent really be criminalised for a light smack to stop a child running across a road or putting a finger near a light socket? I doubt it. See 'a' above.

Could parents be prosecuted for smacking the hand of a child taking things from a shop shelf? No, see 'b'. Or taking something from another kid? See 'c'. Hitting someone? See 'a' again.

Throwing a tantrum in a supermarket? 'c'. Fighting? 'a' or 'c'. Teasing? 'c'. Swearing? 'c'. Insolence? 'c'. If those clauses do not cover everything, the last, 'd', seems wide enough to deal with all persistent disobedience.

A smack may not be the best way to deal with any of these but the new Section 59 (1) of the Crimes Act permits reasonable force if a parent must.

Mr McCoskrie's group is more interested in a second subsection, which says "Nothing in subsection (1) or in any rule of common law justifies the use of force for the purpose of correction."

Ah, correction. What is that?

Mr McCoskrie says it means the same sort of smack and hence the confusion. But lawmakers do not deliberately compose contradictions. They must mean something different by subsection (2). That is how judges will reason if they are asked to interpret the word correction.

As the word is used in public policy nowadays it means serious systematic punishment. The penal arm of the state is now called the Department of Corrections. A prison is a "Corrections Facility".

In plain language the lawmakers might have written that subsection (2) does not allow parents to use force for the purpose of serious systematic punishment. Or more precisely, they might have said "punishment alone". Mr McCoskrie is right that a permissible smack to stop or prevent bad behaviour is also intended to be corrective. But there is another sort of smacking that happens too late to stop or prevent the behaviour. It is only corrective and it tends to be quite a different beast.

When physical punishment is delayed it ceases to be an act of anger or frustration understandable to the child and cathartic for the parent. Delay changes the relationship.

A different parent, father usually, may be called on. And to give the performance due seriousness he is liable to keep a stick, strap, bat, belt or hosepipe handy for the purpose.

The child ceases to see a natural act of annoyance, he (hopefully never she) prepares for a cold-blooded assault intended to leave him in pain and fear.

Delayed, systematic parental correction is the old-fashioned hiding. It was often called a "good hiding".

That is what the recent amendment to the Crimes Act has criminalised. That, I suspect, is the "good parental correction" we are being asked to endorse in this referendum.

The ritual thrashings that children used to receive "when your father comes home", may be rare today but not in some sections of society we hear.

Those who initiated the referendum know what the new law says. They know it permits reasonable force for all the preventive situations they are fond of citing.

They pretend it does not because they could not attract majority support for the restoration of the right to flog children. Don't be deceived by them. Should a smack, as part of good parental correction, be a criminal offence in New Zealand? Absolutely.