Would You Speak Up If You Saw Someone Smacking Their Child?

What would you do if you saw someone punch a kid in the face? Would you step in? Defend the child? Call the police? Probably. But what if you saw someone shove a kid?

Pushed with a single hand. Hard enough that he is pushed sideways, but not so hard that he falls over. What would you do then?

I saw someone shove a kid last week. This man is an acquaintance of mine -- someone I see a couple of times a month but don’t know very well. When we first met, earlier this year, he made a good first impression. What a jovial bloke, I thought. Always smiley, easy to talk to, great sense of humour. Mid-forties, wife and two kids. Typical family man.

Not long after meeting, we had a conversation about our children, who are similar ages. For some reason -- I can’t think why -- we got onto the subject of discipline, and the man happily (maybe even proudly) admitted to me that he once smacked his eldest son. This comment was followed by “Didn’t do him any harm. Anyway, I just have to threaten to smack him now and he smartens up. I don’t have to actually follow through.”

While there have been plenty of angry moments while raising my children, I have never smacked them. Image: Getty

After this chat, I had to reassess that first impression. Perhaps this jovial man wasn’t as easygoing as I’d imagined. Maybe we didn’t share as many core values as I’d originally thought. However, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. He’d only smacked his son once, after all. One smack isn’t child abuse. Is it?

Then I witnessed the shove. We were at an outdoor event. There were lots of people standing around. The kid must have done or said something that his father didn’t like, though I’m not sure what it was. The shove itself was quick, and it certainly didn’t upset the boy. He didn’t seem injured, didn’t cry, didn’t run away. Either it was gentler than it looked, or he was used to this kind of reaction and had learnt to deal with it.

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I have never used physical punishment to discipline my children. Never. There have been plenty of angry moments in my years of parenting. I’ve shouted. I’ve sent the kids to sit quietly in the hallway. I’ve docked their pocket money and screen time. But I’ve never even come close to hitting them. I just don’t believe in corporal punishment.

But do you know what I said when I saw that man push his son? Nothing. I was thinking a whole lot of things: Hey! Don’t do that! You’re a bully! Leave the kid alone! But none of these exclamations came out of my mouth. No-one else said anything either.

In Australia, it’s legal for parents to use “reasonable” corporal punishment to discipline their children. However, the definition of the term “reasonable” isn’t particularly clear. NSW is the only jurisdiction to add a few extra rules about what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to smacking. Basically, it’s fine to inflict brief pain for the purposes of “correction”.

A recent study by Canadian researchers examined the link between corporal punishment in childhood to physical fighting amongst adolescents. It found that countries with complete corporal punishment bans (both school and home) had much lower teen fighting rates than countries with partial bans (school only) or no bans at all.

A recent study found reduced fighting among children and teens could be linked to countries with total or partial bans on corporal punishment in home and school. (Image: Getty)

Violence, it seems, breeds violence. When my father was a child, he was hit regularly at home and at school. His father used an old leather belt from a shearing plant. His headmaster used a wooden cane. Dad says he got smacked “for not being obedient.”

“What did you think of it at the time?” I ask. “Did you think it was wrong?” “No,” he says. “We just thought that we deserved it.”

When my brother was two and a half, Dad smacked his backside with an open hand. Without even thinking, he did exactly what his own father would have done.

When my brother was a toddler, Dad smacked him with an open hand, repeating his own father's actions without even thinking. (Image: Getty)

My mother, who had never been hit by her parents, was appalled. She told my dad that he must never ever do it again, and fortunately he agreed. I’m certainly glad that she spoke up.

Next time I witness a smack or a shove, I hope that I am brave enough to say something. Although perhaps if the legislation was changed -- if all corporal punishment was deemed unreasonable -- then it would be easier to voice my disapproval.