Story: Childhood

Page 5. Child discipline and justice

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Discipline in families

Physical punishment was a common way of disciplining children in New Zealand. Children were rarely hit in traditional Māori society, but once British settlements were established in the mid-19th century, physical discipline became common across all communities. In the 1890s groups campaigned against child cruelty, but few people argued that parents should not use physical discipline.

The right of parents to physically discipline their children to correct behaviour was first formalised in law by the Criminal Code Act 1893. Subsequent acts confirming this right culminated in section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961, which allowed parents to use reasonable force to correct a child’s behaviour. In child abuse cases, juries had to decide what reasonable force meant.

Changing approach to discipline

From the 1970s other forms of discipline like ‘time out’ in a quiet place away from the source of conflict, reasoning, and praise for good behaviour gained greater currency, although smacking remained common. Concerns about children’s rights and high levels of child abuse and injury in New Zealand slowly led to the amendment of section 59 of the Crimes Act in 2007. The defence of reasonable force to correct children’s behaviour could not be used in court. Parents could still use force in certain circumstances.

Yes or no

When a citizens-initiated referendum asked voters in 2009 ‘should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?’, 87.4% of respondents said no and 11.98% said yes. Critics said the wording of the referendum did not accurately describe the amended law. Supporters said Parliament should reinstate the old law. Prime Minister John Key said the amended law would remain in place.

The change was highly controversial. Opponents said parents had a right to smack their children and that physical discipline was not child abuse. They were concerned a ban would lead to good parents being criminalised. However in 2009 the New Zealand police reported that the law change had a minimal impact on their activities, while a review ordered by the government found the new law worked well. A study published the same year showed that most parents used positive disciplinary methods like praise and distraction, with time out and withdrawal of privileges where necessary. Smacking and shouting were used much less frequently.

Discipline in schools

Physical discipline was as common in schools as it was in families. Laws gave teachers the same right as parents to physically discipline children to correct behaviour. In schools this method was referred to by its formal title, corporal punishment. Children called it ‘the cuts’ – an apt description of blows administered by a leather strap or wooden cane.

Student rebellion

Children resented being physically punished by teachers and sometimes retaliated. An ex-student remembered a riot that broke out in a Christchurch school in 1906. The teacher regularly beat children who did not perform well during spelling tests – it was too much on that particular day: ‘It began with the morning whacking for spelling. The headmaster was pelted with inkwells and slates and then rushed and “downed”.’1

Children were hit for lateness, daydreaming and poor academic performance, as well as bad or challenging behaviour. Boys were more likely to be hit than girls. From the 1950s some parents and teachers argued that corporal punishment should be banned in schools, and it became a hot topic between the 1960s and 1980s. The minister of education abolished corporal punishment in 1987, though it was not legislated against until 1990.

Teachers also used other disciplinary methods like detention, litter duty and referral to more senior staff. Some schools banned corporal punishment long before it was legally abolished.

Criminal justice

In the 19th century neglected, poor and delinquent children were sent to industrial schools where they were educated and trained in vocational skills. A combination of teaching and punishment was supposed to mould children into useful citizens. In 1900 separate reformatories were opened to accommodate delinquents.

Until 1906 children charged with criminal offences were tried in open courts alongside adults. After this magistrates could hear child cases (16 years and under) in closed courts. Children could be warned or put on probation rather than convicted. Industrial schools and reformatories were progressively closed or reorganised. A separate children’s court was established in 1925. Underlying these developments was a change in emphasis from punishment to rehabilitation.

In 1961 the age of criminal responsibility was raised from 7 to 10. From 1974 children under 14 could not appear in court unless charged with murder or manslaughter. A separate court was established for ‘young people’ aged 14 to 16. The Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989 introduced family group conferences for young offenders (including children between 10 and 14) and emphasised diversion rather than criminal conviction for first or minor offences. This could include paying for damage, community work, writing letters of apology, counselling or attendance at courses. Oranga Tamariki – Ministry for Children works with families and young offenders through family group conferences to encourage young people to recognise the effects their actions have on others and to make amends.

Serious crime by ‘young persons’ aged 14 to 17 leads to appearances in the Youth Court – a division of the District Court that is not open to the public. Charges of murder or manslaughter may be heard in the Youth Court and then transferred to the High Court. 

  1. Quoted in Brian Sutton-Smith, A history of children’s play: New Zealand, 1840–1950. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981, p. 35. Back
How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Childhood - Child discipline and justice', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 July 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 12 Dec 2018