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Time to Give Spanking the Boot?

Everyone in civil society instinctively knows you can’t hit your spouse. You can’t punch your waitress. You can’t kick your cab driver. We know these things without having to read section 265 of the Criminal Code of Canada that governs assaults. And yet, if you never dusted off the old Criminal Code and turned to section 43 you might not assume that it’s OK for a parent, schoolteacher, or anyone “standing in the place of a parent” to use “force by way of correction” that is “reasonable under the circumstances.”

The so-called “spanking law” has been challenged and upheld as constitutionally valid. It has been attacked and whittled down in courts such that it now excuses only minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature. It only applies to children over the age of two and under the age of thirteen who have been deemed incapable of benefitting from corrective discipline (see Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth, and the Law v. Canada (Attorney General), [2004] 1 S.C.R. 76). But what if the research suggests that no one benefits from spanking a child of any age for any reason?

A recent editorial by John Fletcher in the Canadian Medical Association Journal cites a growing body of evidence that suggests spanking children is “an ineffective method of child discipline” that breeds harmful outcomes rather than inspiring corrective behaviour. An analysis of the last twenty years of research found that spanking is associated with increased levels of child aggression and is no better than other non-violent techniques in eliciting childhood compliance. With medical evidence highlighting the harm in exercising corrective discipline while demonstrating that alternative parenting methods are equally capable of modifying a child’s behaviour, the rationale of the Supreme Court’s majority in the Canadian Foundation for Children case appears to be balanced on shaky ground. How can the use of a physical assault, even a trifling one, ever be “reasonable under the circumstances” if the medical evidence demonstrates that a “time out” is at least equally effective in correcting a child’s behaviour? Does a parent have an inalienable legal right to choose a method of discipline that, but for its use on a child, would constitute a crime? Or, has the time come for Parliament to take a sober second look at s. 43 of the Criminal Code.

At its core, resorting to spanking is a clear admission of defeat by the parent. A parent who spanks has allowed emotion, temper, and frustration to get the better of them thus clouding their judgment. Any after-the-fact justification by resort to the shield of ‘corrective discipline’ is merely a mask worn by the failed parent to hide their shame. No one sets out, calmly and with a level-head after having weighed and considered the alternatives, to smack some ‘corrective discipline’ into a child under twelve. Anyone who had the good sense to stop and think about it would never have reached the point where violence was chosen as the antidote to misbehaviour. Spanking is necessarily born out of spontaneous over-reaction.

A parent who strikes a child under the guise of corrective discipline is difficult to distinguish from an abusive husband who slaps his wife because “she had it coming” or had to be “taught a lesson”. A parent’s duty to care for and educate their child ought to create a greater responsibility to abhor the use of violence rather than excusing it.

The oft-heard refrain, “I was spanked and turned out fine” has always struck me as a particularly poor justification for abhorrent conduct. I’ve met persons who were robbed, threatened, assaulted, or victimized by any number of other crimes. They all turned out fine. But do we really want to base our foundations of criminal law on the old school-yard rule, “no harm, no foul”? The inevitable frustrations experienced by parents facing troublesome children are appropriate factors to consider in the sentencing analysis, but they cannot continue to act as a complete defence to what is in essence an assault on a helpless child.

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Comments

  1. It’s always fascinating to see where the “tough on crime” mentality will pop up. In any event, if spanking is a function of “emotion, temper, and frustration … clouding … judgment”, and if no one “sets out [to spank], calmly and with a level-head after having weighed and considered the alternatives”, then in what circumstances will the necessary mens rea for assault have been satisfied?

  2. This is all very sad! It takes us one step closer to totally removing children from learning that their are consequences for their misbehaviors. Here in Alberta, we have just had a teacher fired for giving a student a “0” as their mark on an uncompleted assignment, because heaven forbid we should teach children that their are consequences for non-performance.

    We have now raised a complete generation telling them just how “special” they are and how they can have anything they set their minds to. This philosophy has manifested itself in all kinds of dysfunctional behaviors, like university students taking on their professors and disputing why they only got a “B’ as their grade for submitting shoddy work; and thinking nothing of cheating to get a better grade. After all, they’ve been told all their lives that they are special.

    Perhaps I’m giving away my age but I was raised in a loving environment where if I misbehaved, my Father would be saying to me, “And what the hell makes you think you’re so special?”

  3. This is Canada, where it’s not ok to kick your dog; or to kiss your signficant other on the butt (if he or she is asleep) if that buss is for sexual purposes; but it is OK to beat you kids (just a bit).

    Those of you who have had to live in Ottawa over the winter will understand why.

    DC

  4. You state:

    “How can the use of a physical assault, even a trifling one, ever be ‘reasonable under the circumstances’ if the medical evidence demonstrates that a ‘time out’ is at least equally effective in correcting a child’s behaviour? Does a parent have an inalienable legal right to choose a method of discipline that, but for its use on a child, would constitute a crime?”

    This reasoning is flawed. As the Chief Justice states at para. 61 of the SCC decision you reference:

    “The reality is that without s. 43, Canada’s broad assault law would criminalize force falling far short of what we think of as corporal punishment, like placing an unwilling child in a chair for a five-minute ‘time-out’.”

  5. Everyone in civil society instinctively knows you can’t forcibly confine your spouse. You can’t ground your waitress. You can’t make your cab driver stay in his bedroom for an hour. We know these things without having to read section 279 of the Criminal Code of Canada that governs forcible confinement. And yet, if you never dusted off the old Criminal Code and turned to section 43 you might not assume that it’s OK for a parent, schoolteacher, or anyone “standing in the place of a parent” to use “force by way of correction” to confine, imprison or forcibly seize children in a way that is “reasonable under the circumstances.”

    The so-called “time-out law” has been challenged and upheld as constitutionally valid. It has been attacked and whittled down in courts such that it now excuses using only minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature to require a child to stay in a time-out chair in her room. It only applies to children over the age of two and under the age of thirteen who have been deemed incapable of benefitting from corrective discipline (see Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth, and the Law v. Canada (Attorney General), [2024] 1 S.C.R. 76). But what if the research suggests that no one benefits from time-outs for any reason?

    A recent editorial by John Fletcher in the Canadian Medical Association Journal cites a growing body of evidence that suggests time-outs for children are “an ineffective method of child discipline” that breed harmful outcomes rather than inspiring corrective behaviour. An analysis of the last twenty years of research found that time-outs are associated with increased levels of child aggression and are no better than other non-violent techniques in eliciting childhood compliance. With medical evidence highlighting the harm in temporarily depriving children of human contact while demonstrating that alternative parenting methods are equally capable of modifying a child’s behaviour, the rationale of the Supreme Court’s majority in the Canadian Foundation for Children case appears to be balanced on shaky ground. How can the use of a physical confinement in one’s bedroom, even for a trifling period of time, ever be “reasonable under the circumstances” if the medical evidence demonstrates that a “loving suggestion to be nicer” is at least equally effective in correcting a child’s behaviour? Does a parent have an inalienable legal right to choose a method of discipline that, but for its use on a child, would constitute a crime? Or, has the time come for Parliament to take a sober second look at s. 43 of the Criminal Code.

    At its core, resorting to time-outs is a clear admission of defeat by the parent. A parent who confines has allowed emotion, temper, and frustration to get the better of them thus clouding their judgment. Any after-the-fact justification by resort to the shield of ‘corrective discipline’ is merely a mask worn by the failed parent to hide their shame. No one sets out, calmly and with a level-head after having weighed and considered the alternatives, to imprison a child under twelve. Anyone who had the good sense to stop and think about it would never have reached the point where forcible confinement in a bedroom was chosen as the antidote to misbehaviour. Time-outs are necessarily born out of spontaneous over-reaction.

    A parent who confines a child under the guise of corrective discipline is difficult to distinguish from an abusive husband who locks his wife in the cellar because “she had it coming” or had to be “taught a lesson”. A parent’s duty to care for and educate their child ought to create a greater responsibility to abhor the use of isolation rather than excusing it.

    The oft-heard refrain, “I was sent to my room and turned out fine” has always struck me as a particularly poor justification for abhorrent conduct. I’ve met persons who were robbed, threatened, assaulted, or victimized by any number of other crimes. They all turned out fine. But do we really want to base our foundations of criminal law on the old school-yard rule, “no harm, no foul”? The inevitable frustrations experienced by parents facing troublesome children are appropriate factors to consider in the sentencing analysis, but they cannot continue to act as a complete defence to what is in essence the extrajudicial imprisonment of a helpless child.

  6. When shopping I often encounter the sloe-eyed “Wards of The State”, on bended knee with wringing hands, wheedling and whimpering, trying to soothingly and in deferential, syrupy, pleading tones, reason with a 6 year old Anti-Christ screaming his or her hatred and displeasure for both all Mankind and the parental denial of his present wish or demand, which, in being denied, is cause for his or her seething rage…..that can be heard from one end of the shopping mall to the other.

    These little displays of “loveable facets of kiddies growing up” or “charming facets of the blossoming spirit of youth” are, pick your facet, in the opines of disciples of Dr’s Spock and Phil, facets which must be nurtured and cultivated and to do otherwise may create “significant dysfunction and debilitating trauma” for the child later on in life…….the same trauma relied upon in our courts of law to excuse or mitigate everything from mass murder to child molestation and rape.

    The reverential treatment of poorly behaved children can be directly linked to a marked detachment and inability of the child to associate cause and effect later in life. The perhaps I am wrong as later in life these children grow up knowing full well that poor behavior, in any form, achieves his or her desired ends.

    This….in a word, is a farce.

    On a personal note, when I was a child, and a real little manipulative bastard at that, I learned on one memorable occasion, that telling a police officer, after being politely questioned by the same in relation to my being out alone in downtown Toronto at 2a.m, to f#ck-off wasn’t the most intelligent course of action…..that conclusion arrived at after the constable’s hand swept over a desk and launched me across the floor of the station house……..

    Up till that point I had being withholding information such as name, rank and serial number not to mention parents address and telephone number……I was a legend in my own tiny little mind……

    Pain and sugar can be very effective tools in the successful interrogation of little bastards to wit:……the police officer, a very large, old school, police officer, walked over and stood directly over me and looked down……I was shitting my pants……he reached down and, with one hand, picked me up and with the other, picked up the chair….then, with my feet clearing the floor, he walked over to his desk, put down the chair and then with the other hand, very firmly placed me in it……

    The police officer, hands on hips, stood there for a moment and then asked me if I was hungry…my answer was immediate and with the respect I had been taught by my parents….”Yes Sir”….

    He disappeared to a vending machine in the hallway and returned with a small nickle sized bottle of Coke and a package of two lemon filled doughnuts covered in icing sugar……”here, eat this”, he said……

    I was halfway through my first doughnut when he pulled his chair up to the desk and, with hands hoovering over the typewriter asked”…….where do you live and what’s your telephone number?……I was so eager to answer that my response covered the police officer in pieces of doughnut……..it seems that pain and sugar has transformed little Al Capone into a very compliant Pee Wee Herman (In those heady days before his charming debut in the adult theater)

    Later, when Dad came down to retrieve me from the police station, as we left I squeezed out a couple of salty ones whilst rubbing my sore cheek…Dad inquired as to what would make the “bad policemen” hit me…..I realized I was cornered, after a dozen very pointed, unswerving questions I confessed as to the “F” word……..I didn’t see old Dad’s hand and ,once more, was sent flying and sprawled across the Toronto sidewalk……Dad was very mad……

    …my father hoovered over me and spit through his clenched teeth….”You little bastard!!….you run away, causing endless worry for your mother and I, then I have to take 2 buses, ride 3 subway trains and spend money we don’t have on a taxi, I lose sleep when I have to work tomorrow and all because of you….I have to come down and suffer the humiliation and embarrassment of retrieving my son from a police station and now I find out you bring further embarrassment and shame on our family by opening your filthy mouth and disrespecting a police officer who is just doing his job?…….you little bastard!!!…just wait till I get you home!!!

    So, there I sat, beside Dad on the way home…..with stereo ringing in my ears….very quiet….and no doubt in my tiny little mind that I was not only a little bastard but that Dad was not only very displeased, but he was not a fool who suffered manipulative, snot-nosed, profanity loving, little bastards gladly…

    Artistic flair aside…..this is a true story by the way….

    Children need a firm hand and there is nothing wrong with a knuckle rap on the skull (my mother had deadly aim…) there is nothing wrong with a slap on the face and there is nothing wrong with a spanking….a little pain goes a long way in the reinforcement of a parents admonition, direction or instruction, that, oft repeated, goes blithely ignored by little Johnny or Suzy…,…

    In closing…..

    The line can be drawn at turning your child black and blue….that is criminal and there is never ever a reason to turn what are gifts….into cringing little punching bags…….

    Regards, Don Laird
    Edson, Alberta, Canada

  7. I’m glad to see this piece getting the ‘comment’ juices flowing a bit. Allow me to chime back in response on a few of the issues raised:

    PATRICK
    I’m entirely in agreement with you on the plight of the terminated teacher…by all means, teach accountability by giving students who fail to hand in an assignment a zero. Where I would differ is if that teacher (or anyone else acting in an educational / parental capacity) decided to slap a kid’s hand with a ruler instead of giving them a failing grade.

    There ARE “consequences for non-performance” (as you indicated in your post) but those consequences should not be state-sanctioned violence in the name of corrective discipline.

    BOB
    I think the mens rea analysis in the context of spanking lies at the question of whether one can actually honestly engage in spanking (or other violence) with the genuine intent of inducing a child to learn a disciplinary lesson. The violence is indicative of a LOSS of control — precisely the opposite of what is required to hide behind the shield of a legal defence in which the claim is that one exercised violence for pedagogical reasons. Anyone thinking pedagogically would have selected another educational method in light of the current state of the research. The mens rea for assault is made out when you deliberately apply force (beyond the de minimis range)to the child without the child’s consent — just as it is in every other case of assault. It’s the mens rea inherent in the “corrective discipline” defence that I take issue with.

    DAVID
    I spent five winters in Winnipeg and two in Saskatoon so I think I’ve got your Ottawa winter trumped. ;)

    LUKE
    That’s probably the best use of ‘cut & paste’ to make a point that I’ve seen in a while. ;)
    Having said that, I think there is a point missed in your cagey rebuttal to my piece. We don’t criticize parents for grounding their children or using other non-violent methods of discipline because A) the parent has a duty to educate, B) those acts are non-violent, and C)we believe that such disciplinary acts actually have the capacity to change the child’s behaviour. In fact, the entire justification for a defence of “corrective discipline” is predicated on the belief that violence can in fact teach the child a lesson. It’s that belief which the medical research now claims to be false. Spanking fails on points B & C (if the recent medical research is to be believed) and is therefore of not an acceptable way to accomplish the task set out in A.

  8. Edward – you do; though I meant Ottawa’s winter as one explanation for some of the SCC’s odd(er) decisions.

  9. As a footnote to my comment above I add the following….and please forgive the edge…..

    In Canada we have, to satisfy the sentiments of liberalism, extended hands of “generosity, understanding and forgiveness” to what are no more, in many cases, than vicious predators and mindless psychopaths. We are paying the price for that.

    At the same time that we allow the likes of Karla Homolka to walk free from prison after serving a sentence so short as to be an offense to intelligence and decency, we, upon the whispers of a “good citizen” haul families into court for the heinous crimes of “spanking”…..turning their lives into nightmarish chaos…..and all at the hands of the self appointed, pious and self righteous defenders of children…… how utterly ridiculous.

    The contrast is one worthy of our derision and ridicule and nothing more…..

    Perhaps if we we a little more exacting in our need for justice for truly monstrous crimes…like our friends to the south…..if we followed their model Karla Homolka would have another 80 years left to serve.

    Below is a YouTube link to a mother in Texas who beat her daughter senseless and to the edge of death, she glued the childs hands to the wall, glued the child’s eys shut and beat the two year old mercilessly…..the details can be found on the ‘net…..

    Here is her sentence for the horrors she visited on her child……

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npUcfj06VEQ

    Regards, Don Laird
    Edson, Alberta, Canada