Why the Senate wants to hit spanking parents with law change

It's the age-old question: when children misbehave, do you punish them with a slap on the bum?
Youth debaters, left to right, Michelle Quick, Matthew Geigen-Miller, Shelagh Roxburgh and Jade Rox pose at a news conference on Parliament Hill in July 2000 after taking part in a debate on whether children should be able to spank their parents. The debate was in response to Section 43, an existing provision of the Criminal Code that permits corporal punishment of children. ((Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press))
It's the age-old question: when children misbehave, do you punish them with a slap on the bum?

Thus far, it has been a personal decision for parents, but now the Canadian Senate is moving an anti-spanking bill to the House of Commons that, if adopted, could take the option of spanking out of parents' hands.

Bill S-209, which needs MPs' approval to be made into law, proposes to get rid of Section 43 of Canada's Criminal Code, which allows parents and teachers to use reasonable force to discipline a child and correct their behaviour.

Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette, who introduced the bill, said she believes she will get the support of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion. The Conservatives, however, have voiced concern over the bill.
Liberal Senator Céline Hervieux-Payette, who introduced the bill to repeal Section 43, says she believes she will get the support of Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion. ((Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press))

Opinion is divided on whether spanking is needed, and the Supreme Court in 2004 denied a challenge to Section 43. Regardless, the bill is moving ahead.

The spanking debate has been around Parliament Hill for more than a decade, and the opinions on both sides are well staked out.

The arguments for and against spanking

Hervieux-Payette, the leader of the opposition in the Senate and a former cabinet minister in the Pierre Trudeau government, appeared before the Senate standing committee on human rights last year. She told her fellow senators of a visit she had with 60 elementary school students who sat in the Senate seats and debated the spanking issue.

"I am pleased to report that they unanimously voted to repeal this legislative provision," she said.

She later testified: "Children have told me that if they have done something wrong, their parents can punish them by telling them not to play with their video [games] or not watching television. Children know there are different ways of disciplining. You do not have to attack their integrity; you still must respect them as individuals."

When asked by a committee member about why there are stumbling blocks to the proposed legislation, Hervieux-Payette brought up the Old Testament.

"I understand some people, but there are those I hardly understand — for example, the religious belief that we should apply the Old Testament, which says that if you love your children, you abuse them physically and hit them.

"We are talking about something that was written some thousands of years ago. The science of sociology did not exist when the Old Testament was written.

"There is a school of thought that you correct children because you love them. However, it does not work, and there is no evidence whatsoever that it works. There are many studies that contradict this tradition."

Hervieux-Payette said a child who is hit by an adult "certainly does not have a lot of self-esteem."

"The most heart-wrenching situation of all is the children who commit suicide. When a loving parent strikes his child, it is difficult for the child to trust the parent. Not so long ago, lawmakers moved to address the problem of spousal abuse. Provinces enacted measures to support families."

During Senate testimony in May of this year, Hervieux-Payette said: "When it is an adult who is hit, we call it assault. When it is an animal, we call it cruelty. And when it is a child, we call it discipline. We need to change that perception."

Corinne Robertshaw, founder and co-ordinator of an advocacy group called Repeal 43 Committee Toronto, told the Senate committee that parents set a bad example when they hit children for correction.

"The example contributes to other domestic violence and the general level of violence in our society," she said. "Fear is not a good basis for self-discipline. Discipline that relies on punishment is not the way to teach children to discipline themselves."

But Dave Quist, the executive director of the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, an Ottawa-based lobby group, argued before the committee that spanking was necessary.

"There are so many issues that contribute negatively to our society — social influences, biological factors, poverty, substance abuse and so on. There is no empirical evidence that the removal of Section 43 will deal with any of these negative influences," he said.

"We can all agree that every child is unique and different. Because of this uniqueness, every child needs to be disciplined in a way that is most effective to them. Typically, this will be on a graduated basis — most often, distraction techniques for infants, verbal clarification, time outs, loss of privileges, natural and logical consequences and spanking. … It is important that we focus on the actual outcomes of the research and discipline.

"In considering this issue, we must ask ourselves, does the state have a role in the raising of our children? I believe the state only has a role in limiting society's rights and freedoms if those rights and freedoms are deemed to be harmful to society and its members. There is no evidence that the state needs to interfere in this issue."

Quist pointed out that Sweden and New Zealand have been referred to as countries that have benefited from a no-spanking policy.

"However, the full data and latest research does not support that premise," he said. "Some data suggests that since 1979, when the Swedish spanking ban was put into place, youth-to-youth violence is actually on the rise."

Some in legal community oppose change

Some members of the legal community have come out against the elimination of Section 43 and have made their submissions to the Senate committee that studied the bill.

Lawyers say they are afraid of the legal repercussions for parents who decide to spank their children.

"By prohibiting the use of reasonable force by a responsible adult who might step in where it would be otherwise reasonable to do so, it might actually represent an increased risk to children, either from their own behaviour or from the unrestrained behaviour of other children," said Greg DelBigio, chair of the Canadian Bar Association's national criminal justice section, in a news release.

The association said in its release that the change "would result in an unwarranted expansion of criminal liability, over-criminalizing behaviour of parents, teachers and authorities attempting to deal with troubled children in extremely difficult circumstances."

"It would also grant immunity to children and teenagers for dangerous behaviour while having no impact on actual assaults on young people by parents and authority figures," the release said.

Mark Lapowich, of the Canadian Council of Criminal Defence Lawyers, argued before the Senate committee on legal and constitutional affairs in May of this year that the removal of the corporal punishment provision would open parents up to charges of assault.

"A valid defence is being removed. This defence is currently available to parents and teachers who are doing their best to raise and educate their children in stable family and school settings through guidance and the appropriate use of discipline," he said.

"If Section 43 were repealed, make no mistake that the assault provisions of the Criminal Code would apply to parents or teachers who use any force against a child without the child's consent."

Hervieux-Payette tried to reassure senators on the human rights committee that parents are not the targets.

"My objective in proposing this measure — and my personal goal as a lawmaker — is not to embarrass parents or drag them before a court of law," she said. "Rather, I want to resolve the issue of the harm done to children, to protect their rights and to make sure that parents who are not properly educated about this receive some support."

It's wrong to spank children: professor

Joan Durrant, a family social services professor at the University of Manitoba, says spanking is linked to higher levels of anxiety and substance abuse.
Joan Durrant, a family social services professor at the University of Manitoba, also made an appearance before the Senate, where she argued that spanking had too many negative ramifications for children.

In an interview, she said spanking makes kids become increasingly angry and resentful toward parents over time, "and they tend to take it out on other people."

Spanking, she said, is linked to higher levels of anxiety and substance abuse, as well as eating disorders.

"When you look at youth violence, sometimes people will say, 'Those children haven't been spanked enough.' But actually, those children have been exposed to quite a high level of violence."

The argument made by some parents that they were spanked and turned out just fine is flawed, suggested Durrant, who is also a child clinical psychologist.

"That may be quite true. Most people of a certain age were spanked as children and may not have any difficulties," she said. "But we don't make policy decisions on an individual self-perception. We make policy decisions on the basis of what we know to be true in the population."

She pointed out that dozens of studies have shown that spanking has negative effects on children and that there are other ways to discipline kids.

"This isn't about telling parents what to do, or telling them how to raise their children," Durrant said. "It's about understanding that physical punishment places children at risk. … We need to act together as a society and replace it with things that do promote children's health."

Twenty-three countries have prohibited corporal punishment, and Canada needs to catch up, said Durrant.