From Brian Hutchinson at National Post:

Steven — a pseudonym — didn’t abandon the child. He spent time with her, playing with her in the mother’s home, taking her on brief outings. Last summer, Steven agreed to look after their daughter while the mother spent the night with a friend. Something happened: A fuss was made during a diaper change, and Steven struck the little girl. When she still didn’t comply and she attempted to crawl away, he pinned her on the floor, he says. Red marks were left on her leg, and on her back. While the marks remained visible for several days, she suffered no permanent injury.

Steven was arrested and charged with assault causing bodily harm. He spent four nights in the local jail. He’s now on trial in B.C. Provincial Court; a ban on publication prevents disclosure of his identity, and the names of the mother and child. Steven is anxious, worried that he’ll receive a prison sentence or be deported from Canada. He’s also bewildered: He insists that his relationships with the mother and his daughter are fine, and that no harm was done.

Had he applied reasonable, corrective force as a parent, as Canadian law allows? Others — the RCMP, and the Crown — say he went too far in his attempts to subdue his little girl. Judge Stella Frame must decide.

Thoughts? Is spanking acceptable? If so, how much?

If not, is a legal proscription the best way to go? Further, if spanking should be illegal, is it okay to punish someone even though, right now, it isn’t illegal*?

Finally, wouldn’t a plain reading of the Criminal Code demand that this man be prosecuted?

*Note: Spanking is currently legal, but with numerous restrictions. It doesn’t seem that this man violated any of the objective distinctions (he used his hand; the child is older than two, but younger than twelve; he didn’t hit her in the head).

Jonathan McLeod

Jonathan McLeod is a writer living in Ottawa, Ontario. (That means Canada.) He spends too much time following local politics and writing about zoning issues. Follow him on Twitter.


  1. That is a super-fraught question.

    I think you’ll find that most pediatricians tacitly or overtly discourage spanking. I know my practice does. I remember discussing it in residency, with the consensus thinking it should be discouraged but drawing the line at abuse.

  2. > Is spanking acceptable?

    Acceptable? That’s a question that’s fraught with framework peril. I’ve hit my child (the elder) once – rapped him on the noggin – when I absolutely needed his complete attention and I couldn’t grab his arm (he was endangering his younger sibling). I think it’s pretty unlikely that physical violence of any sort is an optimal disciplinary tool, but I haven’t dealt with every child.

    > If so, how much?

    Not much.

    > If not, is a legal proscription the best way to go?

    Only if we’re willing to put a *lot* more resources towards proper legal proscription. False positives are an enormous problem in this space.

  3. Spanking is clearly sub-optimal. But the criminal law should be written to set the standard of that which is barely acceptable in society, not that which is optimal or that to which we aspire.

    Now, you either think spanking is inherently abusive, or you concede that it can be done in a way that is not abusive. If it is the latter, then your opinion is going to be that spanking falls below the level of that which is even barely acceptable. I am of the opinion that some forms of corporal punishment can be done in ways which are not abusive, and therefore that a blanket ban on spanking would punish behavior which is acceptable, even if only barely so.

    So I would resist a ban on spanking, being aware that if adopted, this opinion would open the door to all sorts of “what-is-reasonable” questions about parents disciplining children on a case-by-case basis. In the case described in the OP, the fact that marks were left behind for days after the discipline suggests to me a reasonable possibility that the boundary of reasonability was crossed so I can’t fault the authorities for investigating further.

  4. Erm…

    If it is the latter former, then your opinion is going to be that spanking falls below the level of that which is even barely acceptable.

    Sorry for the confusion.

  5. Everyone I knew growing up, including me, was spanked. Now it seems to be something of a socioeconomic thing. The moms I know who are more educated or have more money never do, or say they never do, the less educated/ less well off are more likely to, and more likely to assert that it is essential to good parenting. One incident especially struck me: a mom of a special needs kid that I know was infuriated because a psychologist suggested that she should never hit her special needs kid for discipline. She was angry because she thought the psychologist was suggesting that h special needs kid was less than fully human in some way, because of course you’re supposed to hit typical kids.

    I haven’t hit, but have definitely pinned children down for unwanted diaper changes, doctor exams, etc. I agree with Burt that marks left for four days seem unjustifiable, and warrant investigation. While I feel like giving kids even a non-bruising slap (what my mom would call a “zetz”) is both a bad idea and morally wrong, I understand that people who feel otherwise can come to that view in good faith and love.

  6. And the fact that it’s a socioeconomic thing makes the using the criminal justice system to regulate it particularly ripe for abuse.

  7. Didn’t Megan McArdle have a post on this topic about 7 months ago?

    Here. Quote:

    “It seems to me that what parents have discovered is a much, much more intensive form of parenting than their grandparents employed. The elaborate charts and systems of incentives are enabled by the fact that modern children are effectively monitored by adults every waking hour until they become quite old….

    “Today’s kids seem to be not only supervised but regimented; most of their time is supposed to be spent in some sort of structured activity. This makes it very easy to create elaborate reward systems, because there is all this elaborate surveillance that makes it very easy to monitor compliance.

    “But if kids are unmonitored most of the time, then I wonder how well that works. It strikes me as plausible that a world in which kids spend more time unsupervised requires a parenting style more reliant on swift punishment for detected wrongdoing than rewards for good behavior….”

    Not sure I agree 100%, but seemed on point.

    tldr: spanking has been superseded by helicopter parenting.

    • I dunno. I don’t spank and I don’t have elaborate reward systems. I don’t much like interfering with kids during playdates, doing art projects, watching TV, or what have you unless they want me around.

      I also almost never give him a time out, either. It’s a totally lazy approach – the wait-until-he’s-developmentally-ready-and-he’ll-figure-it-out-probably method. If I really don’t want him to do something, say, run in the street, I supervise. If he does something wrong, I usually tell him why I don’t want him to do that. If he is angry, I bring him to another room and just hang out with him. He is not perfectly behaved by any means, but seems no worse behaved than anyone whose parent uses star charts or spanking or time-outs. So I’d just as soon not bother with star charts or spanking or time-outs and write blog posts instead.

      There’s no doubt that there is indeed more helicoptering, but I don’t think it’s either helicoptering or spanking. That’s a false dilemma.

  8. Spanking is acceptable only on chicks with fine asses, and then only as a prelude to intercourse.
    ‘Nuff said.

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