Sometime after Sue Bradford's child discipline law was passed in 2007, I was at an Auckland mall on a Saturday morning. It wasn't very crowded. There was a couple there, Maori I think, and their child, a girl of about 3 or 4. She was having a meltdown, and no amount of gentle persuasion was going to calm her.

I thought she was probably over-tired. I wanted to tell her parents they should just give up and take her home for a nap, which is what I would have done when my children were small. But they seemed determined to keep shopping. They cajoled, they bought her icecream, and dad carried her calmly while she flailed and kept up her unhappy protest.

Before the law change, someone would have muttered loudly that the child needed a good smack, and the parents would likely have obliged. I've seen parents pressured into dealing more harshly with their children because of others' disapproval, just to prove they were in control.

But on that Saturday morning, there was no muttering, no obvious irritation. Because everyone knew that little girl couldn't be smacked, everyone seemed relaxed.

It seemed a small but significant shift.

To no one's surprise the $9 million smacking referendum has found that 88 per cent of those who voted (47 per cent of all voters) think "a smack as part of good parental correction" shouldn't be criminalised.

Well, of course. Maybe I'm suffering from smacking debate fatigue but I can't see why this changes anything. Bradford's law was always going to be reviewed at the end of two years, and given the loaded question and John Key's assurance from the outset that the referendum wouldn't lead to a law change, it's hardly a mandate - clear or otherwise.

What, for example, constitutes "good parental correction", and what kind of smack are we talking about? Is it the kind that involves implements? "No-vote" organiser Bob McCoskrie wants specific guidelines written into law to say that parents can smack with an open hand on the bottom or hand, but his co-organiser Larry Baldock favours wooden spoons and rulers. Is bruising permissible? And if so, will there be special note of the fact that bruises can be less visible on darker skin?

If the purpose of the referendum was to stop good parents being criminalised for "light" smacking, we don't have a problem. So far no parent has been prosecuted successfully for that. The law allows "inconsequential" physical force - such as a light smack - in several circumstances, including stopping a child harming themselves or others.

But it rightly rules out the kind of parental correction that began with smacking and led to James Whakaruru's stepfather beating the 4-year-old to death for bedwetting.

That's an extreme example. Some people don't recognise child abuse unless it involves a maimed or dead baby, but those who work with children know that the abuse continuum is less clear-cut. Hundreds of damaged children never end up in the public eye.

I've been at Pacific Island events over the years where children were openly hit because of an expectation that parents should do whatever it takes to keep their children under control.

In too many Pacific Island homes, a sound hiding is regarded as good parental correction. I knew of a teenage girl who was hog-tied by her parents and suspended from the garage ceiling. Her parents weren't monsters - they just didn't know any better.

Such kids tend to be harder to control at school, because they respond to only one form of discipline. Others learn to keep their mouths shut, never to answer back or to challenge or negotiate - which stands them in good stead at home, but often works against them in the outside world.

The last thing these children need is for their parents to be given our blessing to continue hitting them under the auspices of "good parental correction".

John Key says he'll change the law if it's not working, if good parents are being criminalised for lightly smacking their children. So far there's no evidence of that.

If parents think they shouldn't hit their children because of the law, that's good.

If a few parents get investigated because a member of the public thinks they might be hurting their children, that's also a good thing, even if the police subsequently decide that there is no cause for concern. I'd rather see neighbours and police erring on the side of caution, and a few families inconvenienced, than miss the opportunity of saving one child.

We need to give the law a chance.

It isn't perfect, compromises seldom are. It tries to protect children while preserving parental autonomy - and if it leans too far on the side of protecting children, that's as it should be. No one wants to be told how to raise one's children. Parents can legally visit many forms of abuse and neglect on their children, and no one interferes for the most part.

But any society that purports to care for its children has to have a bottom line. As Children's Commissioner John Angus says, the law is a line in the sand.

Key needs to hold that line. And if he can save us from another round of the smacking debate, I'd be very grateful.