Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

What Do Children Tell Us about Physical Punishment as a Risk Factor for Child Abuse?

Academic journal article Social Policy Journal of New Zealand

What Do Children Tell Us about Physical Punishment as a Risk Factor for Child Abuse?

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper discusses children's views of family discipline and possible implications for policymakers. In 2004, 80 New Zealand children, between five and 14 years of age, took part in research eliciting their views on family discipline. In response to questions on family discipline children spontaneously revealed concerning levels of the frequency and severity of physical punishment, some of which would be identified as child abuse using any threshold. Children's reports of the context in which physical punishment was delivered by parents was also of concern. Many children reported high levels of confusion when trying to link their own views of physical punishment with the actions of their parents.

INTRODUCTION

Gaining knowledge of children's views on family discipline is important to develop effective discipline practices, and to gain a balanced perspective on the controversial policy issue of how the state should better protect children from harm (Dobbs et al. 2006). Adults debate the best methods of disciplining children and their views influence law and public policies, but children's voices are not heard. Holden (2002:593) argues that "investigating discipline through the eyes of children rather than adults is needed. To better explain how discipline affects children now and in the future it is important to understand how children react to the disciplinary incident".

The use of physical punishment as a form of family discipline is of particular interest in this study, since it is a commonly used but contentious form of family discipline. While most of the general population may agree that harsh physical punishment is harmful to children and can be easily defined as abusive, many argue that there is a distinct difference between parents using physical punishment and child abuse, and that there is no association between the two. The main issues or justifications for its use are that physical punishment is not related to child abuse because physical punishment is used only as the last resort, physical punishment comprises "a loving tap", parents administer physical punishment in a climate of control and warmth, and physical punishment is an effective discipline method that does children no harm. This paper will in part present 80 children's views on these issues.

The aim of this study was to examine the meaning of family discipline and physical punishment and the context in which it takes place, from children's perspectives. The methodology attempts to put children in the role of experts about their own experiences in family life, which has the advantage of placing children's experience in context.

STUDY DESIGN

Eighty children aged between five and 14 years of age participated in the study between April and September 2004. The criteria for children to participate in the study were that they had no known or alleged history of child abuse or neglect and that they had sufficient verbal skills to participate in a focus group discussion. The children were selected from schools in five different areas of New Zealand reflecting the diverse socioeconomic and ethnic make-up of New Zealand. Ten schools were selected in all, two from each area. There were slightly more boys (n = 43) than girls (n = 37) in the sample, (see Figure 1), and the children came from three age groups: 5-7 years, 9-11 years and 12-14 years.

Children were recruited through their parents with the help and consent of school principals. Parents, who were approached by the principals, gave consent for their child's participation. In addition to gaining formal written consent from children, the researcher explained to the children when she first met them who she was, the purpose of the study, and the topic that was going to be discussed. The children were given an information sheet as part of this explanation and were told that their parents had agreed to their participation but that they did not have to participate. …

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