The people have spoken and the Government is obliged to act. The vote against the criminalisation of parental "correction" is too decisive to be ignored. The referendum question may have been biased by its reference to "good" parental correction but it is doubtful that anyone who wanted to outlaw smacking was misled by it. Sue Bradford was not confused. Though she argues that the question discredits the result, she had no difficulty deciding how to vote. Nor did many others.

What should Parliament do now? Act MP John Boscawen has a member's bill to put to the House that would expressly permit parents to use reasonable force for the purpose of "correction". That purpose would be additional to those already specified by the 2007 amendment allowing parents to use force to stop or prevent misbehaviour.

Former MP Larry Baldock, who initiated the referendum, would prefer that Parliament simply remove the clauses that prohibit the use of force for correction. That suggestion has the considerable appeal of avoiding a tortured debate on what might constitute "correction", as distinct from stopping or preventing misbehaviour.

It would be better to remove all reference to the word that the Family First campaign finds confusing. It rightly argues there is often no distinction between prevention and correction. A smack to stop or prevent bad behaviour also corrects it. Yet Family First also wants the right to smack for correction alone. Hence it prefers the Boscawen bill.

Whether parents have the right to smack for correction in circumstances divorced from prevention is a question the referendum has not settled. For this, the referendum backers have themselves to blame. Their material did not sufficiently inform voters that parental force is already permitted for dealing with childhood risks and offences. The vast majority of voters probably cast their ballots believing Sue Bradford's bill had outlawed smacking entirely.

That is a misapprehension Family First fostered by declaring the law unclear and citing instances of parents being abused or threatened with a report to the police for a witnessed smack. If there was no more to these incidents than has been described, they must be extremely rare. The anti-smacking law has not left parents noticeably fearful of lifting a hand. The vast majority smack no more or less than they did before it passed - which is to say hardly at all.

This whole debate has disguised a high level of consensus about the place of violence in child discipline. Before the referendum the Herald commissioned a DigiPoll survey of parents to update four decades of research by psychologists Jane and James Ritchie. It found the number who smack their children at least once a week has dropped drastically in the past decade to just 8.5 per cent. The number who never smack - just 10 per cent in the previous decade - has risen to 36 per cent.

Yet 85.4 per cent of that same sample intended to vote against the criminalisation of smacking. Plainly today's parents have found better ways to bring up children but overwhelmingly they do not want the law to forbid their resort to force if they need it.

The law does not forbid it, and never has. But nor can it ignore children's rights. The Crimes Act has long limited parents to the use of "reasonable force". There is probably general agreement about what that means even if watertight definitions are elusive. If we must now make another attempt to define permissible force, may the debate be calm and better informed than those we have suffered twice now. A law that can reflect modern practice should put this unpleasant subject to rest.