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Smacking is all of our business

By Libby Burke - posted Thursday, 15 February 2001

"If you hit and humiliate a child, the only lesson [the child] will learn is to hit and humiliate."

- From the film, Little Women

This afternoon I participated in a crime. I want to say "witnessed" but inaction by myself and everyone present made us all accessories to the crime. We all sat and watched an out-of-control mother repeatedly smack her toddler at a major shopping centre this afternoon.


As a mother, I can empathise with this mother's frustration in attempting to stop a child amid a full-blown tantrum. Sadly, she could not see her physical abuse was merely exacerbating the problem.

This mother far exceeded the "what he needs is a good smack" disciplinarian rhetoric. She was a mother out of control who could use only violence as a means of conflict resolution. A mother in need of help because she sadly lacked the coping mechanism to deal with this situation.

I cannot help but feel all of us there were guilty because we watched and simply "minded our own business". At what point does a private matter become public? When does the cry "mind your own business" become inextricably linked to my business?

We are bombarded daily with images of murder, violence, sexual abuse and war, yet I found the image of that mother pulling her son's pants down chanting "Do you want a smack?" and then smacking a red raw bottom (with another little one watching) far more disturbing. If she can unashamedly "belt" her child in public, what is she doing at home? How is she teaching her children to cope with anger and frustration? I cannot help but think the cycle of violence will seep into the playground and this learned behaviour will become a part of my children's generation.

What is our duty/obligation to our fellow citizens and children? Do we reach out to the mother obviously at her wit’s end? Do we give the child what it really needs - a cuddle?

So while I sit here trying to grapple with the notion of "it's none of my business", instinctively, I cannot help feeling it really is - all of our business.


The intention behind this Letter to the Editor (published in the Weekend Australian Magazine Nov 25 -26, 2000) was to explore the blurring between "none of your business" and "all our business".

Before I confronted this incident my views on smacking were ambivalent. Physical punishment was (and is) not a part of our family’s disciplinary repertoire. Parenting styles and techniques were as individual as the families themselves and it was not up to me to pass judgement, or rather, it wasn't "any of my business". This seminal incident cleared the blurring.

The choices and complexities modern parents face are enormous. Each decision is greeted with an expert's view on the dire consequences: to work or not to work, breast or bottle, cloth or disposable, tennis, violin, art, soccer, cooking classes, kindy gym – to smack or not to smack? What are the social and long-term effects? Will I be paying for psychoanalysis instead of university because of a few smacks? Listening to the "experts" can create mental havoc for the decisively-challenged. Just when we thought we were doing something "right" some researcher's new study "proves" us wrong.

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About the Author

Libby Burke is a freelance writer who has worked as an editor and journalist. She currently works as a full-time mother.

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