July 2004

Associate Professor Joan Durrant visits New Zealand

Associate Professor Joan Durrant visits New ZealandJoan is a developmental psychologist and associate professor in the Department of Family Studies at the University of Manitoba.  Joan is active in Canada and internationally in promoting change in regard to physical punishment and she recently led work on a document against physical punishment which has been endorsed by over 100 organisations in Canada.  Joan has also written a public education pamphlet advising against the use of smacking.

Joan's presentations were warm, charming and lucid.  In her presentations and many media interviews Joan gave convincing evidence of the:

  • negative effects associated with physical punishment
  • ineffectiveness of physical punishment
  • relationship between physical punishment and child abuse
  • components of effective discipline
  • changes that have been achieved in other parts of the world, in particular, in Sweden.

Joan's definition of physical punishment:

  • spanking, slapping, smacking with the hand
  • striking with an object (belt, shoe, stick, paddle, ruler, extension cord, hairbrush)
  • forcing a child to hold an uncomfortable position (standing motionless, ‘invisible chair')
  • forcing a child to kneel on hard objects (floor, grate, pencils, uncooked rice)
  • forcing a child to withhold body wastes
  • forcing child to ingest foul substances (hot pepper sauce, lemon juice).

Some of Joan's key points are reported below.

At the Littlies Lobby (Royal New Zealand Plunket Society and Office of the Children's Commissioner) Parliamentary breakfast in Wellington on 17 July 2004, Joan spoke about "Public education and physical punishment".

Joan proposed that public education can set standards, shift norms and inhibit impulses.  Joan's view is that there are three key messages that must underpin campaigns to change parental behaviour.  These are:

  • there is no evidence of benefit (smacking doesn't work)
  • there is strong evidence of risk (smacking harms)
  • there are constructive alternative approaches to discipline.

She stressed that these messages must come from various sources:

professional organisations, government publications, and the law.

Joan explained physical punishment as a risk factor for poor outcomes - not all children who are smacked will suffer poor outcomes including child abuse, but their chances of experiencing poor outcomes are considerably increased compared to children who are not smacked or hit.  This is an extremely useful response to the common argument: "I was smacked and it never did me any harm".

At the Children's Issues Centre seminar Joan discussed the debate over children's rights versus parents' rights.  She described this as a negative approach as it suggests that if one side wins, the other loses.  She argued that advancing children's rights can in fact, empower parents who want the best for their children.  When a country places what is best for children at the centre of law and policy, parents can be helped to meet their needs and their children's needs.  Joan presented Sweden as a country where children's physical and social wellbeing is at the centre of social policy.  Joan argued that by respecting children's protection and provision rights, Sweden has also improved the lives of parents.

The Swedish ban on physical punishment has led to a massive reduction in the number of adults who believe that physical punishment is ever necessary (now less than 11%).  Serious child abuse is now rare in Sweden and few children report experiencing even mild physical punishment.

In Auckland at a seminar organised by UNICEF, the Institute of Public Policy at Auckland University of Technology and the Littlies Lobby and hosted by the Auckland City Council, Joan addressed "International perspectives on discipline".  Joan reviewed the long-term goals of child rearing:

  • problem-solving
  • internalisation
  • communication
  • attachment and trust
  • empathy and pro-social reasoning
  • respect
  • confidence, motivation and mastery
  • independence.

Joan demonstrated that physical punishment is not an effective form of long-term discipline and how the short-term goals of discipline, obedience and compliance can be achieved without use of physical discipline.  She demonstrated that physical discipline is not congruent with the two essential keys to effective discipline.  These are warmth and structure.

Joan's visit to New Zealand was memorable for many people because of her knowledge, warmth, humour, energy, and her sincere interest in New Zealand.  Her willingness to tackle a very busy schedule, and meet with media was much appreciated.