Press Release: The Judgement of the Gauteng Local Division of the High Court on Physical Abuse

Judge Keitleigh’s finding in the appeal of a father against a conviction of assault on his son is welcomed by Childline, which for many years has advocated for equal protections for children in law, as compared with protection for adults. There is no question about an adult or teenager hitting another adult –this is clearly seen as assault and illegal, and charges may be laid.

However, the neglect of the issue of corporal punishment, for example, hitting children in the private context of the home, and in the name of discipline, has resulted in unequal protection between adults and children, with adults afforded greater protection by the law. This is despite the fact that children are more vulnerable to injury, and the younger the child, the more vulnerable s/he is.

The Judgement withdraws the defence of reasonable chastisement – a parent can no longer justify any form of physical discipline in response to misbehaviour or any other reason. This does not mean that parents who use corporal punishment should be or will be prosecuted wholesale. Like the smoking legislation, which has resulted in very few prosecutions, Childline hopes that this judgement will encourage parents to reflect on their methods of discipline and acquire ways of helping their children modify their behaviour via parenting techniques and methods that encourage their children to develop positive decision making skills and future thinking about the future consequences of their choices.

Research on the outcomes of using corporal and other humiliating punishments clearly indicates that these forms of discipline do not produce consistently improved behaviour. Children who experience fear of parents, caregivers and educators may be slower to learn, more likely to suffer a loss of self-esteem and confidence, and in some instances, more likely to use violence as a way of resolving inter-personal differences and conflicts.

Changing parenting behaviour is a challenge. Some parents believe that discipline without corporal punishment is not discipline. These skills are rarely taught in a formal way and parents do tend to repeat similar patterns of parenting across generations. The temptation of many will be to say “I was smacked as a child and it has not harmed me”. Indeed, some children survive relatively unscathed despite harsh parenting techniques, but many do not and may enter early adulthood with few skills to deal with inter-personal conflicts and other challenges in relationships.

Hopefully this change in law will result in all forms of media promoting alternate forms of discipline, offering a range of choices that can be discussed between parent and child in order to make appropriate choices in response to unacceptable behaviour. This should not wait until misbehaviour occurs and difficult emotions such as anger are riding high. This discussion should be held when parents and children are relaxed and able to share ideas freely. Parents and caregivers should give clear and consistent messages about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour and should also make the effort to notice and appropriately praise good behaviour.