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B.C. parenting expert wants Canada to repeal the section of the Criminal Code that makes spanking legal

"We really, really need to move this needle," says Danielle Dionne with the No Violence for Kids Canada Action Group.

If you are an adult of a certain age, you were likely hit as a form of punishment as a child. 

If you are a grandparent, chances are even higher you got a wack if you stepped out of line. 

Some parents still use physical punishment today. 

Yet various and numerous studies have shown that it is damaging to kids.

Research shows that hitting kids for punishment can, among other things, cause direct physical harm, has negative impacts on mental and physical health, leads to poor moral internalization and increased antisocial behaviour, increased aggression and increased violent and criminal behaviour in adults, according to endcorporalpunishment.org

Spanking is also shown to damage family relationships. 

(Find out more on the impact of physical discipline on the WHO's website.)

Physical punishment is still happening

According to the World Health Organization, one in four adults worldwide were physically abused as children.

One in two children aged two to 17 years — one billion children — were victims of some type of violence in the past year. 

Therefore, there's a global movement to change thinking about physical punishments. 

In Canada, the Call to Action 6 of the Truth and Reconciliation recommendations demands the repeal of Section 43 of Canada's Criminal Code, which justifies the corporal punishment of children.

Globally, target 16.2 of the WHO's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is to "end abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against, and torture of, children."

'Hey, this is not OK'

German-based musician Rik Sargent, better known on social media as @celebritykid, is using TikTok to reach kids and rally them to fight back against physical punishments. 

Sargent, who goes by the pronouns they/them, has struck a nerve with folks of all ages. 

Their TikTok account alone has 5.4 million likes. 

Their catchy song, “Stop Hitting Kids” in particular, has been making the rounds with 3.1 million views to date. 

Sargent, who formerly worked educating kids at the Science Museum in London — making science digestible — was inspired to advocate for the end of corporal punishment by following parent educators and researchers on TikTok during the pandemic. 

"People like that inspired me to talk more about this, but also do it in a way that was fun," they said. 

Sargent has since had children who are currently living in abusive situations comment on their TikTok videos and they want to let kids know they are seen.

It is also a personal issue for Sargent, who says their dad used corporal punishment a few times when the musician was a kid, and it was traumatizing. 

"I love my dad; he's a great guy," Sargent stressed, "I wasn't hit a lot as a kid — it was a handful of times — but perhaps because it was only a handful of times, it was such a shock to me that I still carry that emotional sort of feeling of betrayal in a way that I'm still processing. It is really hard when someone you love and who loves you lashes out at you like that. And so, I think I put the emotion into the song as well, which is maybe why it resonated with people in the way that it has."

Sargent said while there are adult-centric campaigns around ending corporal punishment, their aim is to speak directly to youth and get them engaged on the issue. 

"Honestly, my goal is for young people to be outraged because I think that far too often, unfortunately, when we talk about corporal punishment, we're placating adults. Because, yes, it is almost involuntary behaviour that's culturally ingrained. So it's hard to get out of that. But my point is that if children are of equal, deserving of equal respect, and also lack a voice politically, then we need to be even more careful to centre their emotions and their experience over that of the adults in the situation," they said.

"So for me, it's about educating the youth that, 'Hey, this is not OK. Even if it's legal, I don't think it's OK. A lot of other people don't think it's OK. And you should be angry about that.' And then, hopefully, in my mind, that leads to youth-led protests in the same way that, you know, the climate protests were very youth-driven and youth-led."

About 60 countries have banned at-home corporal punishment. 

But not Canada. 

Section 43 of the Criminal Code legalizes corporal punishment by parents and guardians. 

B.C.'s Danielle Dionne, the lead organizer and speaker with the No Violence for Kids Canada Action Group, is advocating locally to have that section repealed. 

Her day job is as a parent management training specialist, meaning she works to help parents guide their kids without violence. 

She has worked with families for about 20 years. 

Her goal is to raise awareness that this section of the Criminal Code still exists and to mobilize Canadians to help get it repealed. 

"We really, really need to move this needle," she said. 

Most parents who hit were hit themselves, she said, and so it's inter-generational. 

The movement to change the culture isn't about shaming parents, she stressed. 

"I believe in parent liberation. I love parents and I believe they do the best that they can. And it's not OK to blame parents. They're doing what [they] reactively have learned to do, and not just because of their own parents — we have to look at the big picture," she said. 

"We live in capitalism — the parents need two jobs; neoliberalism, it's all individualism, right? [The culture is] hyper-individualist, competitive. Look online, there's all this competition over how to parent. So the pressure on parents is like an instant pot; it is going to blow. And then you add to this colonialism, and [almost] every program out there is based on Western ideologies of behaviourism, which is punishment theology."

Parenting is really hard, and Dionne said she has never met one who didn't want to do a good job at it.

The three reasons parents tell her they resort to hitting are that they are exhausted, busy and stressed.

"That's not their parenting. That is society," she said. 

"They want to do better, and the system is going against them," she said. "I've done over 3,000 calls with parents, and I'll tell you, I've never met one who wants to do a bad job at this. They don't want to hurt the kids. But they do. And they cry about it every night. They are the victims too."

Repealing the law would not mean a bunch of parents get thrown in jail. In fact, she says, what has happened in other places where corporal punishment is outlawed is that all parents — not just those in trouble or who can afford it — get access to parenting resources. 

Corporal punishment was fully banned in Ireland in 2015.

"There are parents in Ireland now [who] get proper support, evidence-based parenting practices, information at all levels of government," Dionne said.

Federal government responds

A spokesperson for the Government of Canada sent The Squamish Chief a statement regarding the movement to repeal Sec. 43. 

The government says that the Criminal Code contains general criminal offences to protect everyone from violence and a number of offences that specifically protect children.  

“When an offence is committed against a child, a court must treat this as an aggravating factor for sentencing purposes, which means that the crime is treated more seriously and can result in a more significant punishment,” the statement reads. 

In addition to protections under the Criminal Code, every province and territory has laws to protect children from family violence and abuse, the spokesperson noted.

“These laws allow the state to take action where a child is in need of protection from physical, emotional and psychological harm or neglect. Many provinces and territories also have laws and policies that prohibit the use of physical punishment of children in foster homes, childcare settings such as daycares, as well as in schools.”

The feds also noted that assault is broadly defined in Canadian criminal law to include any non‑consensual use of force against another person, no matter their age. 

“This can also include non‑consensual touching that does not involve physical harm or marks.”

The spokesperson said that section of the code is “a limited defence to criminal liability for parents, persons standing in the place of parents, and teachers for the non‑consensual application of reasonable force to a child. On the latter, in 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada clarified that the criminal law does not permit corporal punishment in schools and provided guidelines that significantly narrowed its application to reasonable corrective force that is minor or transitory and trifling in nature.”

The spokesperson added that the government opposes the use of physical discipline on children and continues to discourage such practices through public legal education and information materials. 

The spokesperson pointed readers to the publications Child Abuse is Wrong: What Can I Do? and Criminal Law and Managing Children’s Behaviour, which explain the law and clarify that the criminal law does not permit corporal punishment in schools. 

In addition, the spokesperson noted the brochure called What’s Wrong with Spanking? aims to guide parents in responding to children’s behaviour and promotes positive parenting. 

“The government recognizes the long and painful history of physical abuse visited upon Indigenous children, including in the context of residential schools. Implementing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action is a vital part of the Government of Canada’s work to advance reconciliation. While progress has been made, there is more work to do and the government remains committed to this effort. The government continues to explore how best to respond to Call to Action #6 to repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code.”

Not hitting doesn't mean kids get free rein

Dionne said that not hitting doesn't mean permissive parenting where the children rule the house. 

"We're talking about how to support parents to be assertive, true to themselves. True to the way they want to parent. And that is evidence-based assertive parenting," she said. 

"That's what parents need to hear — it is OK to say no. And teaching kids to accept no is one of the biggest challenges that parents face... It's OK to be assertive as a parent, and it actually feels really freaking good — so good. Parenting is good leadership."

Join the movement?

April 30 is the "International Day to #EndCorporalPunishment of children."

Find the No Violence for Kids Canada Action Group on Facebook. Sargent (@celebrity kid) will be doing a talk with the group’s organizers on May 20 at 9 a.m.

There is a petition on change.org — End Violence Against Children in Canada-End Corporal Punishment — to repeal Section 43. 

Dionne recommends folks read Decolonizing Discipline: Children, Corporal Punishment, Christian Theologies, and Reconciliation to more fully understand the issue.

Help for parents

Parents can access, for free, the Canadian Mental Health Association's Confident Parents program

In the Lower Mainland, there's also the BC Children's Kelty Mental Health Resource Centre.

Sea to Sky Community Services offers programs for parents wanting support in the Sea to Sky Corridor, including the Strengthening Families Program and Positive Parenting resources.

For those in crisis: 

  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
    • Available to young Canadians between five to 29 years old who are seeking 24-hour confidential and anonymous care with professional counsellors.
  • Hope for Wellness 24/7 help line: 1-855-242-3310
    • Available to all Indigenous peoples across Canada who are seeking immediate crisis intervention.
  • Childhelp National Child Abuse 24/7 hotline (multilingual service available): 1-800-422-4453
    • Help with finding the contact information of the child protection service in your area.

 

Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect that Sargent's first name is spelled Rik, not Rick. We apologize for this error.