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It's an issue of responsibilities and rights, not violence versus discipline

By Ruth Phillips - posted Monday, 7 July 2003

If the aim of the editorial comments for this month's theme was to be provocative it has been highly successful, if it was an attempt to describe general truths about violence against kids then it is horribly misguided and, as young people might say, so last century!

First, dirty old men hanging around schools may get lots of attention when dirty old or young men hang around schools but it is certainly not the preoccupation of discussions of child protection. Anyone with any professional links to child protection knows that children are at most risk of physical, sexual or emotional abuse from the people closest to them. Most violence against children takes place in their own home or where they reside and is committed by parents, carers, siblings, friends of the family or other relatives. "Stranger danger" may be a key theme for teaching young people who not to trust, but the key theme of child protection information is about awareness of one's own self, what is private, intimate and appropriate and that a chid has a right to feel and be safe from harm.

Second, to suggest that there is an equation between violence and discipline is at best ignorant and dated and at worst a perpetuation of all the values that child protection has fought so hard to change. There is no evidence that physical punishment is an effective form of discipline. This is a myth that is central to a most contradictory value in our day-to-day world. Adults hit or physically punish children because they can, because they don't have to think, just act, because that's what their parents did and they're okay. We tell our children "don't hit, use your words" - we abhor violence among children, it is simply not acceptable. We also take and have a right to take criminal action against adults who hit and "don't use their words", we call it assault. So why is it okay that someone who is very big can hit someone who is very small and then call it discipline?


Violence in families is a major problem in our society and extensive in many others. Despite 30 years of state responsibility and intervention there has been scant reduction in the incidence of abuse against children and violence against women. If there is any form of violence in a family it will affect the children, either they are directly subject to violence or are seriously affected by witnessing it and often bear emotional scars and a lack of alternative coping skills from such experiences.

There is a deep reluctance at the most senior levels of government to really come to terms with violence against kids. This is because when it comes down to making protective legislation, outlawing all forms of assault against children, including "disciplinary" punishment by parents, the people sitting around the Cabinet table fear the political backlash and find solace in their own life experience of being parents or parented where physical punishment could be viewed as discipline. Why?

When it comes down to it, is it because parenting is still equated with ownership or rights/power over children? Many contemporary parents do not use physical punishment as discipline as they recognised how ineffectual it was in their own upbringing - memories of hurt and moments of hatred. Others however, impulsively whack their crying babies or toddlers (we all witness this and often turn the other way) and many still feel that pain is a good deterrent to poor behaviour. Despite the obvious - hit someone and you teach them hitting is how you control a situation - many parents fail to learn alternative forms of discipline. Until we recognise that children should have the same protection from harm that we adults enjoy, violence against kids will continue to be a shameful symbol of a not yet fully evolved society.

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About the Author

Dr Ruth Phillips is a Lecturer in the School of Social Work and Policy Studies, Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Sydney. She has a strong social-policy practice background, research interests in international NGOs, the welfare state in South Korea and social policy.

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Related Links
Feature: Violence against Kids
School of Social Work and Policy Studies, University of Sydney
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