For their own good, Eric Medcalf

Unreasonable Force
Beth Wood, Ian Hassall, George Hook with Robert Ludbrook
Save the Children New Zealand, $25.00, 
ISBN 978047313095

Unreasonable Force documents the campaign leading to the repeal, in June 2007, of Section 59 of the 1961 Crimes Act. Section 59 gave parents a legal defence against prosecution for assaulting their children, if the assault could be seen as “reasonable force” in the correction of a child. It traces the historical context of such a legal position as far back as Roman law, in which children were assumed to have the status of parental chattels, and reflects on changing attitudes worldwide. These have been codified in the United Nations (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCROC), which was ratified by Jim Bolger’s National Government in 1993.

It took another 14 years for the rights of children to be protected from “all forms of physical or mental violence” by the repeal of Section 59. That this was through Sue Bradford’s private member’s bill, rather than government policy, should not detract from the fact that, in its final stages, its passage into law was a triumph of multi-sector lobbying, balanced press reportage and, eventually, inter-party consensus. The appearance together, in the bill’s final days and having “struck a deal”, of the leaders of the two major parties with the major coalition partner and the bill’s sponsor was an act of high political drama.

Reading this book from the perspective of a psychotherapist working with young people and their parents, I was struck by the parallels between the repeal process and families’ struggle to balance passion, rationality and moral values, a struggle that occasionally ends in violence but which, at its best, can be resolved through compassion, wisdom and reason.

As a nation we are defined by our achievements on the world stage, our Everests, our Kiris, our ANZACs, our Rutherfords. These bring us together in celebration of our nationhood, and for a while at least we are united in celebration, writing our histories with pride. We are also defined by, but tend not to shout so loudly about, our shortcomings in world league tables, in particular our high position (third) in the world for child deaths as a result of parental maltreatment (UNICEF report, 2003).

We also define and form ourselves through our internal struggles, in which neighbour argues with neighbour, husband with wife, and parent with child. Votes for women, the Springbok tour, the watersiders strikes, homosexual law reform and civil union have all invoked powerful and sometimes violent debate as opposing views have taken the public floor. As current Commissioner for Children Cindy Kiro writes in her foreword to this book, these are issues where there has been “conflict, soul searching and heated debate in our country”.

Families are less defined by their externally visible achievements than by their success in resolving internal conflicts. The strength of a marriage is measured not by an absence of conflict but by the ways conflicts are resolved. Anyone who has hit a child in anger will admit that to do so was a failure, a regression to a more primitive position on the path towards maturity. The existence of a legal excuse, that the hitting was done out of a need to “correct” the child, gave parents and caregivers the opportunity to opt out of responsibility for their anger.

The argument that physical punishment is an effective tool for the modification of a child’s behaviour was historically used as a support for such punishment being legally sanctioned. Proof of this has been hard to find, with research indicating there are more effective, non-punitive methods.

The authors of Unreasonable Force point out that “In reality, [physical punishment] is usually administered by angry (rather than calm and collected) parents.” They quote leading figures in the history of repeal, Professors Jane and James Ritchie, who say “Many parents have been willing to admit that hitting their children was a consequence of their own state of tiredness, frustration or anger, rather than part of a deliberate policy aimed at improving their children’s behaviour.” New Zealand social researcher Terry Dobbs reports that children believe “anger was often the reason why parents hit them rather than trying to make them behave better”, and was more likely to promote misbehaviour because “it makes them do it again because they get angry with their parents for doing it (smacking), so they do it again” (2005).

One of the arguments for repeal was that Section 59 implicitly sanctioned parents’ use of violence against children. We know from history, such as that of concentration camps, and from psychological experiments, such as the “Stanford” prison study, that, given a permissive environment, human beings are capable of acts which, in other circumstances, they might label immoral or sadistic. While the law may not always influence the expression of anger, the existence of law that sanctions violence against children in specific circumstances does nothing to help the angry parent exercise self-control.

As we might expect, a book with four authors does not read consistently. Unreasonable Force is best read as a collection of contemporary essays on various aspects of the campaign for repeal: law, rights, religion, politics, public attitudes and the media; together with descriptions of milestones, personalities and hopes for the future. Each author has their own specialism and at least three of the four (Wood, Hassall and Ludbrook) played an important role in the history of the reform; the fourth, George Hook, author and lobbyist, is likely to be the (not unbiased) craftsman who brought the book together. But the book’s repetition and variations in style do not detract from what is a valuable document, recording an important stage in New Zealand’s growing maturity as a nation, and contributing to what may prove to be continuing debate as the political climate shifts and conservative fundamentalism sits quietly in the wings waiting for recession to stimulate discontent and a return to “traditional values”.

New Zealand was the first English-speaking country to repeal law that offers defence against parental assaults in the name of correction. Thus Unreasonable Force provides a resource for similar campaigns overseas, as well as for students of social change generally. So while the book is a valuable document for New Zealand historians, being both an archive and a guide to other archived material, it is also clearly aimed at audiences outside the country. Among other valuable appendices, it provides potted guides to the New Zealand systems of government and law creation: background for those in other countries who might use this book as guide, and sustenance for their own struggles against legalised child assault.

The debate around the repeal of Section 59 has prompted us as a nation, as parents, as families and as individuals to examine ourselves. We have debated the nature of childhood; asked what children need to grow into healthy adults, and how much we should rely on law to protect the weak from the strong. It has also, especially in its final processes, validated MMP as a system within which consensus can be reached through compromise, rational argument, an appreciation of values, and passionate, non-violent, debate; surely a model for conflict resolution in families.


Eric Medcalf is a Wellington psychotherapist and parent.


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