Society is going to hell because we don't (legally) beat children anymore. This sentiment is strewn across editorial pages and social media by commenters who believe we need to return to the "good old days," when we paddled children at home and even at school.
Discipline has become part of the narrative surrounding nationwide teachers' strikes. Educators are locked in a stalemate with the government, insisting they need more time away from students to plan. And more money would help, too. Teachers are not asking for a return to corporal punishment, which was legal in New Zealand until 1990.
Some people point to the lack of physical discipline as part of the reason teachers struggle with a growing number of problem students.
If only parents and teachers could hit, or at least threaten to hit, children, we'd be better off, say those who believe, "spare the rod, spoil the child". Society has gotten soft, and we're all paying the price as students unleash bad behaviour in the classroom, according to hardliners.
Interesting theory - that banishing corporal punishment led to deplorable conduct and the fraying of moral fibre. But correlation does not prove causation. Just because teachers are struggling with more behaviourally-challenged children now than before 1990 does not mean beating was the glue keeping kids' conduct in check. The threat of the cane or strap never ensured proper conduct.
In the "good old days," pupils got whacked not just for throwing chairs or tantrums, but also for failing to learn a lesson, not handing in work on time and talking in class. Punishments could be arbitrary and cruel.
A US National Institutes of Health study in 2016 reported corporal punishment in public schools was legal in 19 (mostly Southern) US states. More than 160,000 children in those institutions were subject to physical punishment each year.
The study found schools disproportionately applied corporal punishment to children who were black, to boys, and to children with disabilities. Researchers found evidence indicating not all misbehaviours that elicited corporal punishment were serious.
"Children have been corporally punished in school for being late to class, failing to turn in homework, violating dress codes, running in the hallway, laughing in the hallway, sleeping in class, talking back to teachers, going to the bathroom without permission, mispronouncing words, and receiving bad grades…"
New Zealand's Ministry of Social Development reports physical punishment predicts "a wide range of negative developmental outcomes."
It's associated with problems including increased child aggression, antisocial behaviour, lower intellectual achievement, poorer quality of parent-child relationships and mental health problems (such as depression). Evidence about whether physical punishment results in short-term compliance is mixed, but experts say this compliance can be achieved as effectively without its use.
Corporal punishment, according to MSD, can legitimise violence for children. Parents may inadvertently encourage behaviour they're trying to prevent by hitting children as a form of punishment.
MSD says social learning theory suggests physical punishment enables children to learn aggressive behaviour through modelling.
"If parents try to modify their children's behaviour through inflicting pain, then those children are likely to do the same to others when they want to influence other people's actions."
In other words, whack a child at home or at school, and that child becomes more likely to hit other people. This is not behaviour I want to instil in my own kids.
I remember smacking my son on the bum for disobeying me when he was five. I told myself I was teaching him a lesson. In reality, I was taking out my frustrations and aggression on a small, powerless person.
I felt horrible about what I'd done, what I had role-modelled. I apologised to him afterwards and never hit him again. These days, on the rare occasions my teens swat each other ("He wouldn't get out of my room!" complained Miss 15, after smacking her 13-year-old brother on the arm several months ago), I tell them, "We don't do that in our family. We don't hit."
So what does work? Removing privileges when children misbehave. Consistency. Parents and teachers who listen. In some cases, it's necessary to expel a student whose behaviour is so disruptive, his or her peers can't learn in the same space.
Teachers' challenges are enormous. Some of them have three (or more) students with behaviour and/or learning problems in a class of 30.
Teachers need more helpers, more professionals to manage children who are defiant and even violent. Hitting, or threatening to hit these students is not only illegal; it's pointless. Why would we sanction violence, especially when some of these children come from homes where brutality is the norm?
The reasons for behaviour problems are complex: Many children in our community come from families where housing is uncertain. Moves are frequent; parents are working, stressed, stuck in traffic, struggling alone, battling substance abuse and fleeing domestic violence.
We can't diagnose one cause of classroom conflict, and we can't prescribe one solution, either. Educators do their best to manage troubled children; so do parents. One principal recently told me he has yet to meet a parent who didn't love their child.
Without violence or the threat of it, parents can still parent. Teachers can still teach. Harsh disciplinary methods of the past are ill-suited to producing future leaders. If we want to produce a nation of calm, collected individuals, we must discipline young people in ways that are firm but kind.
Spare the rod to raise the child.
Dawn Picken also writes for the Bay of Plenty Times Weekend and tutors at Toi Ohomai. She's a former marketing director and TV journalist who lives in Pāpāmoa with her family.