Parents' perceptions of the s59 Crimes Act debate and law change (the "Anti-Smacking Bill")
On the 9th of June 2005, a private member‘s Bill to repeal section 59 of the Crimes Act was drawn from the ballot and after much public debate it came into effect as law on 21 June, 2007 as the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007. The Act‘s purpose was to "make better provision for children to live in a safe and secure environment free from violence by abolishing the use of parental force for the purpose of correction" (Parliamentary Counsel Office, 2007). The present research aimed to investigate parents‘ perceptions of whether and how the so-called 'anti-smacking' public debate and law change affected their attitudes toward and practices in disciplining their children.
A theoretical framework is presented to understand the nature of parenting and how public debate and law change may be seen to influence parental choices in disciplining their children. With a historical and sociological perspective of childhood, and drawing particularly from Bronfenbrenner‘s (1979) ecological perspective, the macrosystem and exosystem form the key theoretical framework for investigating how the public debate and law may affect parents. Gershoff‘s (2002b) process-context model, Straus‘ (1991) cultural spillover theory and Garbarino‘s (2005) cultural justification theory, as well as Xu et al‘s (2000) model of the predictors of the use of physical punishment are explored.
This exploratory study used a qualitative descriptive methodology. Individual interviews were conducted with a small sample of five parents, using an interview guide approach. The questions focused around parents‘ disciplinary techniques, approaches to discipline, and influences both before and after the debate and law change; what they know and think about the public debate and law change; how it has affected relationships with their spouse and children; and where they seek advice on parenting. The interviews were analysed using qualitative content analysis.
Overall, the five participants found the debate strong, polarised, emotional and confusing. Their understanding of the debate and the law seemed to be filtered through their personal stance towards physical punishment. The law did not change their attitude towards and use of physical punishment, although parents reported that it changed the way they talked about smacking and where they would be comfortable smacking. Parents were unsure about what they would do if they saw a stranger in public smacking their own child, and they had not heard a lot about how the law was actually working, apart from a few cases that the media had highlighted. Parents seemed to rely mainly on friends and relatives to get advice on their parenting, and did not often seek professional advice.
This study highlighted the need for further research to understand the impacts of the public debate and law change on parents. The study also highlighted a need for a campaign to educate parents on what the new law actually means, and also a need for more advice and support to enable parents to adopt more positive parenting techniques.