Child Abuse is Wrong: What Can I Do?

Child discipline

Lori quietly wept over the sink, just staring at the afternoon dishes. Her hands were still shaking. She couldn't believe how close she had just come to total disaster. She had only asked Kaila to pick up her toys! But when Kaila had thrown them all down the stairs, Lori had spun out of control. She was just so tired of the toddler's tantrums. Lori knows Kaila is still young, but why can't she learn to pick up things like her friends already do? It was seeing the cell phone in pieces among the broken toys that had made her start yelling. Where were they going to get the money to replace that? In an instant, she had slapped Kaila really hard. And the next thing she knew, Kaila had lost her balance at the top of the stairs. What was she thinking when she did that? Was she crazy? If Lori hadn't grabbed her, Kaila would have fallen all the way down, just like her dolls. Lori began to sob. She loved Kaila, but everything seemed so hard these days with Roy out of work. She always feels like she's failing, especially when it comes to Kaila. She's got to stop doing things like this before something really bad happens. Kaila could have been seriously hurt! And she supposed that hitting Kaila like that could be considered an assault.* Maybe she could check the Internet to find a parenting class or support group: there must be others like her going through this.

What does it look like?

All children need their parents to teach them how to behave. Children need time to learn what they should and should not do. They learn to behave by:

  • watching their parents and other people
  • getting clear instructions, and
  • being praised and encouraged for their efforts.

The right kind of discipline teaches children responsibility, self-control, and right from wrong. It raises the child's self-esteem, encourages the child to do better and strengthens the parent-child bond. Parents should never discipline children until the children are old enough to understand it.

Why doesn't spanking work?

Experts say that spanking is not an effective form of discipline. Spanking can make children angry and resentful. It can cause them to lose trust in their parents. It teaches children that hitting others is okay. In the long run, spanking can make children's behaviour worse.

What does work?

What does work is to build your child's confidence and problem-solving skills. It is important to figure out the reasons for your child's behaviour. When you understand the reason for your child's behaviour, it may be easier to handle the situation without losing your temper.

Ways to help your child behave well:

  • Create a loving and respectful home.
  • Be a good role model.
  • Focus on prevention.
  • Decide what is truly important and have a few clear and consistent rules.
  • Tell your child what you expect.
  • Praise your child's efforts, even if they're not perfect.
  • Respect your child's need to express their emotions.
  • Listen to your child's thoughts, ideas and concerns.
  • Watch your child closely so you can redirect behaviour before it gets worse.
  • Make sure that you both get enough sleep.
  • Make sure that you both eat nutritious food regularly and exercise.
  • Last but not least, try to have fun with your child.

The law on assault in the Criminal Code

The Criminal Code outlines most crimes in Canada. It says that assaulting someone or threatening to assault someone is a crime. Touching someone without their consent can be an assault, even if it doesn't harm them. Under the law, assault can include:

  • slapping
  • punching
  • pinching
  • kicking
  • confining
  • restraining, or
  • unwanted touching.

However, not every action where one person hits another person is assault. And not every threat of contact is assault. People may give their consent to contact. For example, hockey players may body check each other without it being a crime. This is because they have given their consent to physical contact within the rules of the sport.

Also, section 43 of the Criminal Code can give parents and caregivers a defence to a charge of assault in limited cases if they use reasonable force.

Section 43 of the Criminal Code says that parents and caregivers who use reasonable force to correct a child's behaviour may not be found guilty of assault. But section 43 is not a defence for every use of force against a child. Parents or caregivers may only use reasonable force to correct or protect the child. For example, a parent may use reasonable force to put a child in their room for a time out or to pull a child away from traffic. A person who has physically or sexually abused a child cannot use section 43 as a defence.

The Supreme Court of Canada decision

In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada looked at section 43. The Court decided that a parent or guardian who uses force to correct a child can only use it in the following ways:

  • The person may only use force to correct a child if it will help the child learn. The person can never use force in anger.
  • The child must be between two-years old and twelve-years old. (This means that section 43 is not a defence if the child is younger than two or older than twelve).
  • The person can only use reasonable force and its impact can only be "transitory and trifling." (This means that the force causes little or no pain, and does not leave marks on the child).
  • The person must not use an object, such as a ruler or belt, to apply the force.
  • The person must not hit or slap the child's face or head.
  • The seriousness of what happened or what the child did is not relevant to how much force is used in discipline.

It may be acceptable for a person to use reasonable force to restrain a child in some circumstances. For example, you may need to hold your child down to put them in a car seat.

It is not considered reasonable for you to hit a child in anger or to get back at the child for something the child did. It is against the law to hit a child in anger.

The use of force when managing children's behaviour

There are times when you may have to use force to control a child and keep the child, or other children, safe. For example, you may need to touch or restrain a child to keep the child from running across the street. Or you may need to carry a screaming three-year-old out of a store.

Without section 43, parents and caregivers could face criminal charges and might have to go to court to defend their actions whenever they use force to respond to a child's behaviour.

If you are angry, however, finnd some way to cool down before you manage your child's behaviour.

Provincial and territorial child protection laws

Even if the way you discipline your child is not a crime, it could still be abuse. The provinces and territories also have laws to protect children from abuse. These laws allow the provincial or territorial government to step in when a child needs to be protected from abuse or neglect.

What can I do?

Every province and territory has a law that says any person who believes a child is being abused must report it. You will not get in trouble for making the report if you have reason to believe a child is being abused, even if it turns out you were wrong.

Depending on where you live, this could be your local child protection office or the police.

If you have harmed your child, or think you might harm your child, get help. Here are some places you can go for help:

  • your family doctor or public health nurse
  • family resource centres
  • local child protection services
  • local public health department
  • parenting programs
  • parenting resources, like booklets; or
  • organizations that help immigrants and newcomers.

For more information on child discipline, please see resources at the back of this book under "Who Can Help?"

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