Reporter: Michael Usher
Producer: Jo Townsend
To smack or not to smack, it's an issue that goes right to the heart of parenting.
And there doesn't seem to be any middle ground — you either believe that smacking is good old fashioned discipline or you consider it a form of child abuse.
Dozens of countries around the world have banned it.
Now there's a big push to do the same here.
That's despite the fact that most Australians think that an occasional slap is okay.
Still, very few will admit to it, let alone smack their kids in public, like one mother who spoke to Michael Usher.
MICHAEL USHER: To smack or not to smack? It's an issue that goes to the heart of parenting and there doesn't seem to be middle ground. You either believe that smacking is good, old-fashioned discipline or you consider it a form of child abuse. Dozens have banned it. Now there is a big push to do this here – that's despite the fact most Australians think an occasional slap is okay. Still, very few will admit to it, let alone smack their kids publicly – like one mother you are about to meet.
ANN: Look at me, I'm not joking. This is not funny, OK? Not funny at all. Do you understand?
MICHAEL USHER: Mother of four, Ann Shepherd, is dishing out what she calls “tough love”. She smacks her children when they are not behaving. Usually a short, sharp whack to the back side.
ANN: A slap can go straight to the point very quickly and it can get very quick results – for me, anyway.
MICHAEL USHER: Ann hasn't been caught out on camera, more embarrassed to admitting she smacks – in fact, the opposite. She's an advocate of smacking and allowed us to capture these very real, if not confronting, moments on cameras installed in her home.
ANN: That's for you. Smack for you.
MICHAEL USHER: Watching some of the vision from your home and the times when you do smack your children, it's not comfortable to watch.
MICHAEL USHER: You're not ashamed of smacking?
ANN: No, not at all.
MICHAEL USHER: Are you proud of it?
ANN: Um... I'm not, it's not something that I go around advertising but if I was asked, "Do you smack your children?" Yes, I do and I'm definitely not ashamed of it.
MICHAEL USHER: Ann's mum to eight-year-old Anastasia, five-year-old Catherine and toddler twins Christina and Andrew. No doubt they can be a handful – more so since she recently separated from her husband. Ann’s a fan of old-fashioned discipline for all her children. How do you feel when you smack them?
ANN: I don't feel guilty about doing it but I'm a human being. I'm a mother above all, and yeah, it does affect me. However, I know that in the long run I'm doing the right thing, because it will help them to become better adults, really.
MICHAEL USHER: She's far from alone. The fact is, the vast majority of Australian parents believe it's OK to smack their kids. But ne of Australia's leading child protection advocates strongly disagrees.
GERVASE: We need to actually draw a line in the sand and say, "well, actually it's not reasonable to hit children."
MICHAEL USHER: Dr Gervase Chaney is the head paediatrician at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians.
GERVASE: This is not about punishing parents but protecting children. That involves changing behaviour.
MICHAEL USHER: He wants us to follow 32 other countries and make it illegal to smack children.
GERVASE: I'm not a lawyer, I’m not a legislator, but I know it can work. It worked in other countries and I think it's something we can do.
ANN: That’ll be interesting. I wonder if he can come and live with me for a while and see if he still feels the same way.
MICHAEL USHER: What would you say to him?
ANN: I would say, "move in with me for a week – a day, just 24 hours. See how you, you know... How you discipline my children."
MICHAEL USHER: I did spend a day with Ann and her children.
ANN: I'm getting a nice...
MICHAEL USHER: I've got the mashed potatoes here kids. At dinnertime, it's all hands on deck.
ANN: Catherine... Feet forward, sit properly, quick. Sit properly at the table. Now. I count to three. One... Chair in. Yes. Good girl.
MICHAEL USHER: Ann has to be mum, dad, good cop and bad cop.
ANN: Good boy, yes. Yes, yes.
MICHAEL USHER: It's a lot to do on your own.
ANN: Sit down, you sit down, don't worry about them. Not funny, Andrew. You... Carry on with your dinner. Ready now.
MICHAEL USHER: You've done it.
ANN: Where's the wine?
MICHAEL USHER: After dinner, Anastasia and Catherine tell me what it's like to be on the receiving end of mum's punishment. If mum counts to three and you're not doing what you're told, what happens?
CATHERINE: She's going to go smack.
ANASTASIA: We go in the room or we have a smack.
MICHAEL USHER: What does it make you think?
ANASTASIA: Er... Not to do it again.
MICHAEL USHER: Do you do it again?
ANASTASIA: Um... Sometimes.
MICHAEL USHER: But you still love mum, though? How much do you love her?
ANN: You know, I'm completely guilt-free when I do it because I know that it's for their benefit. I'm not doing it to hurt them in any way. It's not affecting their relationship with me, you know. Straight away after they've had a smack, they normally hug me, say, "I'm sorry, mummy, I love you".
MICHAEL USHER: Might they be scared of you, though?
ANN: No, they're not scared of me at all, no.
MICHAEL USHER: Do you believe that smacking your children is making them better children?
MICHAEL USHER: But whether or not it makes them better adults is a question best put to Angela Davis. Six years ago, the British mum of four shocked many when documentary cameras recorded her enforcing military-style discipline. To this day, Angela is unrepentant. So you have to regrets about smacking your children?
ANGELA: At all. I would, even if I had a child tomorrow, I would still smack my child if my child was out of order.
MICHAEL USHER: But these days, her kids are older and wiser.
FIONA: I didn't like it, but as I grew older and I was a parent myself, I understood why she did that.
MICHAEL USHER: And they don't mind telling mum exactly what they thought of being smacked and whacked.
AARON: If a parent hits their child, wouldn't they reflect that by hitting other people? If it's acceptable to hit them, why can't they hit other people?
MICHAEL USHER: I was looking back at the vision from the documentary. That torturous time. Is that how you describe it?
AARON: Torturous, yes. Embarrassing, humiliating, terrible. Horrific.
ANGELA: Lay it on, darling.
MICHAEL USHER: When mum smacked you, what was that like?
AARON: Well, apart from the obvious painful, very disrespectful. She talks a lot about respect and she constantly says you kids don't respect me. I find it laughable because when you hit someone throughout their childhood, how can you expect to have their respect? I just can't understand that at all.
ANGELA: You will never agree. I come from a different generation, you come from a different generation. We will never think alike in this aspect.
MICHAEL USHER: British laws would now prevent Angela from carrying out this kind of discipline on her son Aaron. Today he's 19, about to study law and is surprisingly philosophical about it all.
AARON: I do resent the fact she smacked me, but there are values she has given me which have helped me. She instilled the necessity for ambition, the necessity to appreciate education and use it to the fullest, but that doesn't mean I advocate the smacking.
ANGELA: I have no remorse. I have no remorse about the fact that he resents me. How you bring up your child is up to you. But just remember, that when your child is 25 years old, if he's off the rails, you have to blame yourself.
MICHAEL USHER: But if you have to resort to smacking, aren't you losing control as a parent?
ANGELA: No, we're not losing control. In fact, you are instilling control. If you are good, you are good. You won't get smacked. If you are bad, you're gonna get it.
MICHAEL USHER: Back in Brisbane, Ann Shepherd bristles at the idea of new laws banning smacking. For her, smacking is simply a parent's right.
ANN: Quick. Hurry up, otherwise you will get a smack. Smack you, on the bum-bum.
MICHAEL USHER: Do you think more parents should smack their children?
ANN: Yeah, in general, yes. Just moulding them into being more respectful adults and I guess that is what society needs.
MICHAEL USHER: But just across the ditch, the Government has already made up its mind. Here in New Zealand, anti-smacking legislation was introduced four years ago with all the best intentions. However, the law has been challenged and law-makers embarrassed by one test case in particular. The Petersens, who live on this dairy farm, are a happy, loving family, but one smack turned their lives upside down and they've been fighting to clear their name ever since. Were you the families that were meant to be caught up by this legislation?
ERIK: No. Well, theoretically, it's supposed to be stopping child abuse, but it's not a law that targets child-abusers – it’s a law that targets good parents.
MICHAEL USHER: And Eric and Lisa seem like good parents, but a few years ago their youngest daughter, Abigail, was a handful. One night, she was simply out of control.
ERIK: She had a major, major blow-up. She was banging bunks against the wall and I went in and I said to her, "look, Abigail, either this behaviour stops or you will get a smack on the bottom." I grabbed hold of one of her ankles and pulled up her leg and smacked her bottom.
MICHAEL USHER: The smack left a red mark and it was still there the next day when by sheer coincidence, Abby had a doctor's appointment. Health care workers had no choice but to report the Petersens.
ERIK: I came home after work on a Friday and Lisa said to me – she was in tears and said "I've just had a phone call. We need to find somewhere else for our children to stay".
MICHAEL USHER: Because of that one smack they were splitting up your family?
ERIK: Yes, we were given a critical rating. That's as high as it gets.
MICHAEL USHER: While police interviewed their parents, welfare workers had their own questions for the girls.
ABBY: They asked me, "did mum ever hit you?" and I said "no
MICHAEL USHER: Erik began a marathon fight-back and this year, New Zealand Child Welfare Authorities finally issued an apology. That smack took a fraction of a second but for you it’s turned into a three-year nightmare?
ERIK: Almost three-and-a-half-years now, yeah. And continually working and we've been struggling to clear our name.
MICHAEL USHER: But here in Australia, Dr Gervase Chaney argues anti-smacking laws would target only the worst of parents and he practices what he preaches.
GERVASE: We occasionally resorted to smacking our children and it made us miserable. We didn't think it was effective or useful – in fact, we both made a resolution at the same time, spontaneously, that we would never do it again. Hitting is wrong in our house. We don't accept it. That's what I think all parents should be able to say. It makes parenting in fact easier, because of it.
MICHAEL USHER: But Ann won't be told how to raise her kids and is convinced that down the track, her children will be grateful.
ANN: You know, I’m 100% sure they will thank me. I have no doubt about that because as a child myself you know, I've been smacked and I'm glad, because it taught me right from wrong.
MICHAEL USHER: But do you think you're a good mum?
ANN: Yeah. I do. I am sure that I'm a good mum.
MICHAEL USHER: And if it takes tough love, that's what it takes?
ANN: Yeah. It works. Tough love works.