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Why are we so violent to children?


Why are we so violent to children?

“Yet another international report on children places New Zealand near the bottom of the table,” says Ian Calder, Chief Executive of Barnardos, commenting on the release of the UNICEF’s latest report A League Table of child maltreatment deaths in rich nations.

The basic unrevised data shows New Zealanders killing 1.2 out of every 100,000 children under the age of fifteen years over a five year period. Out of 27 OECD countries investigated, only two countries, USA and Mexico, do worse. The best five countries, Spain, Greece, Italy, Ireland and Norway, kill only 0.1 to 0.3 children. In England the rate is only 0.4 per 100,000 children.

“How can this be?” Ian asked. “Why are we so violent to children?”

“And why are we becoming more violent to children?” he asked when referring to the increased rate in such deaths in New Zealand from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Overwhelmingly these crimes are committed by those who the children can reasonably trust and from whom they should be receiving love and care. They are homicides committed in the family home. A 1998 Canadian study found that 41.3% of the perpetrators of physical child abuse were the biological fathers and 38.9% were the biological mothers.

The report examines the principal factors associated with maltreatment of children. There are a cluster of these – class and race, poverty, lone parenthood, unemployment, domestic violence, family breakdown, drug and alcohol abuse, and so on. All point to parental stress as the precipitating factor.

“But why does a stressed parent turn to violence against their own children?” asked Ian. “It is this question which all New Zealanders need to reflect upon. What are we doing wrong as a society which results in New Zealand parents turning to such violence more readily than in other developed rich societies?”


“It is my strong personal belief that our continued national commitment to the use of parental physical punishment of children is a factor. Section 59 of the Crimes Act legitimises parental violence, and for as long as we fail to outlaw beating children we will have high rates of child maltreatment. It is not that every parent who smacks their child is a child abuser. Rather it is that acceptance of the practice legitimises violence as a family problem-solving technique.”

“As my work at Barnardos comes to an end, it is a bitter disappointment to me that New Zealand still has section 59 on the statute book. We have outlawed flogging in the navy and army and in our prisons. We have outlawed the beating of apprentices and domestic servants. We have outlawed corporal punishment in our schools. We have outlawed domestic violence against women in the home. But we have failed to protect the most vulnerable group of all.

“And to our shame, we have one of the highest rates of child deaths by maltreatment in the OECD,” says Ian.


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