My parents were proud, loud, and fun-loving hippies. They gave my brother and I a broad education and let us discover our own paths in life. They were also very against physical forms of discipline and instead would sit us down and discuss ‘feelings’ and stuff, any time my brother was naughty.
My parents were certainly the exception amongst parents in the early 1980s, though. The 80s were a time when there was much less social confusion and judgment around what level of physical, and mental, discipline a parent could apply to a child. Belts, wooden spoons, and rolled-up newspapers were all seen as perfectly legitimate tools a parent could use to discipline their child, provided the level of physical and mental abuse was not excessive. In most cases, it was more about the fear of this physical punishment, rather than the infliction of the physical punishment itself, that kept a wayward child such as my baby brother in line.
Despite my smack-free upbringing, or perhaps because of it, I completely support a parent’s right to appropriately discipline their child, to instil in that child a sense of responsibility and to teach them that actions have consequences. I also believe this discipline can include moderate forms of physical punishment, ideally combined with open discussions between the parent and child on what is and is not appropriate behaviour, and why the child is being disciplined. Easy for me to say, of course – I’ll never be a parent.
I also appreciate that there must be a limit on how far physical forms (and mental forms, for that matter) of discipline can go. Any methods used by a parent must be appropriate, moderate, and without lasting impact on their child (other than, hopefully, improvements to the child’s bad behaviour). There is a big difference between teaching a child a lesson on consequences, and those consequences being well beyond what is necessary to teach the child that lesson.
Coincidently, my opinions on this issue match up with the way things are under Australian law. In each state and territory there is either a specific piece of law that says how you can discipline your child, or the courts in that state and territory have heard cases on child abuse and made comments around what is and is not acceptable when it comes to corporal punishment of children.
It is legal in all states and territories to use physical forms of punishment on your child, so long as you act reasonably when doing so. What amounts to a ‘reasonable’ amount of punishment is not a hard and fast rule. Instead, in deciding how much physical or mental punishment to apply, or whether to apply it at all, you must think about things like the age of your child, its ability to understand why it is being disciplined, and its ability to learn from it.
Any form of punishment that involves striking or hitting your child’s head, neck or genitals, or that involves physical or psychological torture (such as locking them in a cupboard in the dark, or waterboarding them) is not reasonable in any circumstance, and you could face criminal charges if you discipline your child in such ways.
What if your child has a little friend over, and that little friend is an absolute monster? Are you legally allowed to discipline someone else’s child, and if so, do any different laws apply?
The short answer is that yes, you can discipline a child that is not your own, in circumstances where that child is in your care and you are effectively acting as the parent of that child for a period of time. The same legal rules apply as those that apply to you disciplining your own child – the method you use must be reasonable, and you must take the specific nature and character of the child into account in determining what is reasonable.
What about teachers? Can they use (legally) corporal punishment on their students in the classroom, such as using a cane or long ruler on a misbehaving Year 8 kid? Or is this something that disappeared in the 1960s, along with affordable housing, job security, and a more wholesome way of life?
It depends on what type of school we are talking about. The staff at childcare and early learning centres can, in the Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania, and Queensland, use corporal punishment on children in their care. There are limits: the discipline must be reasonable, appropriately administered, and not cause lasting harm. In the other states and territories, early childcare workers cannot legally use physical forms of discipline on the children in their care. They can certainly dob on the child to its parents, however. And they should!
In primary and secondary government or state schools, corporal punishment is illegal in all forms. Lucky kids! Poor teachers.
Students at private and religious schools should still be worried about being caned by their teacher, though. At least if they go to a private or religious school in the Northern Territory, Queensland, or Western Australia, where it is still legally permissible for a teacher to use corporal punishment on a naughty student, unless a child’s parent specifically tells the school that their child is not to be disciplined in this way. Are you a student at a non-government school in the Northern Territory, Queensland, or Western Australia? If so, it might be worth asking your parents for a note saying you are not to be smacked or caned, perhaps as a present on your next birthday.