Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
My teenage sons still remember the day when their elementary school was put into lockdown because a fellow student was rampaging through the halls. No adult in the building dared to stop him, and so the police were called. Hundreds of students crouched under their desks until their peer had been apprehended.
It seemed like such an excessive response. Surely, a responsible adult should be allowed to physically restrain a child experiencing a meltdown. And by the letter of the law, they can: Section 43 of Canada’s Criminal Code condones the use of force against children by teachers, parents and guardians. But in today’s world, the kinds of adults who should be exercising that right don’t dare to – and those who are using it are often dishonouring the spirit of the law.
Section 43 is a throwback to a time when children were considered inferior, wayward creatures, in need of physical chastisement. Other life forms seen as subordinate – wives, slaves, servants, sailors and apprentices – have been subject to the same logic. But while corporal punishment of those classes has long since been swept from the books, children are still considered fair game under Canadian law.
Of course, it’s not open season on kids. The provision specifies that the force must be “reasonable under the circumstances” and used “by way of correction,” which are highly subjective terms. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada gave the provision greater definition by specifying that the child in question must be between the ages of 2 and 12 and “capable of learning,” that no objects may be used, that the child’s head must be spared, that the harm inflicted must be of a “transitory and trifling nature” and, importantly, that the caregiver must not be acting out of frustration or loss of temper.
These are optimal conditions in theory. But most parents, if they’re honest with themselves, will admit that the impulse to use physical force against a child nearly always originates in anger – and, at some level, the knowledge that there will be no commensurate retaliation. Hence, the age restriction: Slapping a three-year-old is a very different proposition than slapping a teenager.
At root, the use of force against children is an expression of power. We inflict harm on a child because we can, with no risk to ourselves. But considered along the larger arc of parenting, the physical power we wield over children is short-lived. I say this as the diminutive mother of two strapping young men. The real and enduring power is in the emotional connection – a bond built on trust and respect.
Does physical harm strengthen that bond? Possibly, under exceptionally stable, loving, controlled circumstances. But how often do those prevail? The physical punishments I’ve seen meted out to children have happened in the context of adult rage, in moments when nobody is thinking in terms of the Supreme Court’s fine print, if they’re even thinking at all.
In fact, a growing body of research correlates physical punishment of children with negative long-term consequences: increased aggression, higher rates of depression and anxiety, challenges with self-regulation and changes to the brain’s development similar to those found in victims of sexual and severe abuse.
Defenders of Section 43 may be less interested in that research than in their right to parent as they see fit. Spare the rod, spoil the child, they say; house rules, because it’s my family, my business. But the thing is that children grow into adults, and those long-term consequences become problems borne by society at large. Repealing Section 43 is one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action, owing to the horrific consequences that the abuse the law sanctioned had on the Indigenous community.
Ultimately, Section 43 misses the mark. It fails to provide teachers and educators – the people confronted most frequently with unruly and violent behaviour – with the clearly defined tools needed to protect themselves and other students. Consider the case of Sean Hume, the Toronto principal who, in 2018, was relieved of his duties and charged with assault after physically restraining a nine-year-old student who had become enraged on the playground and was throwing objects. The Crown prosecutor argued the principal should have done nothing and waited for the boy to settle down. It took two years for Mr. Hume to be found not guilty of the charge.
Repealing Section 43 will not criminalize all physical interventions by parents. Common law provides defences for acts required to ensure safety, or to protect oneself or others. Parents will still be allowed to wrestle children into car seats or grab them before they run across the street. They just won’t be allowed to hit them when they’re being bad.
Moving beyond Section 43 may also redirect lawmakers’ attention to urgent problems rooted not in our colonial past, but our very contradictory present.
The police were in my son’s school again last week – high school, this time. The incident involved student-on-student violence; it was filmed by student bystanders and shared widely as entertainment on social media. Today, a highly protective and litigious culture of parenting has been pit against a grotesque world of online violence, and adults are visiting an insidious kind of harm on youth through the digital technologies we’ve put in their hands. That requires action.