Last week, I passed the magazine rack in an airport terminal news-stand and scanned the titles. Amidst the women's glossies, a cover photo of a cherubic little girl in pink caught my eyes. Her blond locks seemed to cover up a letter of the magazine's name: SMACKING.
For a microsecond, this made total sense to me. There are special interest magazines on how to fix your fishing gear and plant your gardenias -- so why not a corporal punishment publication by the 'Family Values' lobby? After all, they do brilliant PR. Remember their friendly banners with pictures of unborn babies? And their cheerful slogan: "Banning smacking won't stop them from killing me".
While my moment of horror grew, I imagined the magazine's content: illustrations of a child's body with marked-out areas for slapping and whipping; make-up tips on how to hide bruises; an instruction manual on fixing broken wooden spoons, horse-whips and brooms; a crossword with your favourite bible quotes; and confessional stories on how regular beatings have helped happy families to respect each other. The travel section, naturally, would lead the reader to the most exotic places where public beatings are common, say Khandahar.
All right, enough.
I looked again, and only then realized that the angelic girl's head was covering the letter 'O', not 'A'. Sorry, publishers and editors of SMOCKING and EMBROIDERY, for my mental Freudian slip. But it's been a rough few months for me. Things get a bit blurred. I tend to over-react.
Maybe there is a mini-trauma lurking in the back of my mind. Too many memories of those seven months that I spent on an atoll in Tokelau, a place of heaven and sometimes hell: blue lagoons and brutal lashings. One girl, 14 years old, hung herself in the bush after her father beat her publicly. The palm rod he used broke in his fury.
As the locum doctor's wife, I held an anti-domestic-violence meeting after her suicide; a helpless attempt to change something. Little steps. Maybe the kindergarten could try 'time out' instead of chasing after naughty kids with a broom? How about using speech and restriction instead of inflicting pain -- however minimal the dosage? A radical thought. Too radical for some.
My efforts were met with confusion, scepticism, even open anger. After all, as the islanders stated over and over: isn't this form of punishment "our culture"? Wasn't the girl possessed by the devil because she committed suicide?
No one asked what the father's pact with the devil might have been. In my culture, he would have been charged with child abuse. All of a sudden, there was a deep gap between me and those cool, wise, warm-hearted, self-sufficient and humorous Polynesians who had become my friends. When I left that intense place and settled in New Zealand three years ago, I had no idea that over 80 per cent of those kind and ever-so-friendly Kiwis that I lived amongst would also reveal themselves to believe in walloping their children.
And I mean "believe", because there is a huge difference between a slip of a hand in uncontrolled anger, and taking to the streets to march for your right to hit -- like Family First, the Destiny Church, Simon Barnett and other renowned freedom fighters have done. They've given the old "slip, slop, and slap" slogan a whole new meaning. I'm waiting for the next step of their campaign: perhaps to replace the silver fern with a wooden spoon as a national symbol.
What amazed me most was a survey in schools showing that Sue Bradford had no fans among students -- after all, wasn't she going to throw their parents in jail? If Dad gets the belt out, he must be right, because he loves me. It's the kind of emotional distortion that makes it almost impossible for social workers to get battered women out of abusive relationships -- because they mistake violence for affection. To hit is to love.
The irony of those 'Let's ask the kids' surveys reminds me of Switzerland, where at one stage in history the women of an infamous "Kanton" (county) voted against their own right to vote. Yes, dear Kiwis, you can laugh about this display of backward thinking because you were the first to give women the vote. Maybe some Europeans would laugh at your "I only smack you because I love you" rhetoric? It's all just a matter of time and evolution.
In 1957, Sweden was the first country to make hitting children illegal. The country was divided about it then, just as New Zealand is today. But half a century later, you'd be hard put to find a civilized Swedish parent who'd raise a hand against their child -- it would be like reverting to the attitudes of the Huns and Vikings.
Other countries followed Sweden's example: not always in legislation, but with cultural change. In Germany, obedience, order and discipline had all become dirty words after the war. The radical student movement of the late 1960s brought about a humanistic overhaul of how people viewed children, misbehaviour and authority.
When I started school in Cologne in 1970, corporal punishment had been completely eradicated and wasn't missed by anyone. Twenty-seven years later, I became a mother. Long before then, smacking your child in Germany had become quite unthinkable. Good parents simply don't hit.
The German law only changed to fully protect children against violence (our own version of Bradford's 'Child Discipline Bill') in 2000. It may seem inconceivable to New Zealanders, but I actually had to do research to find that date, because it went down without a ripple: no rallies; no protests; nothing at all. Just another policy. You could ask the question of the chicken and the egg now: does society need legislative measures to change, or the other way around -- and which should come first?
Honestly, I don't care, as long as it does change. After all, I want to stay here amongst my New Zealand friends and not feel alienated any more.
For me, the pro-smacking rhetoric has been a depressing dose of reality in terms of New Zealand culture. It's like when your lovable old grandfather comes out with a racist remark. You are not so much shocked as embarrassed on his behalf. However it's still a setback, a diminishing of respect -- a side of him that you would rather not have observed.
But maybe it's better in the long run that you do. In a way, seeing so many people become so angry because a member of the Green Party is attempting to stop the hitting of children is like Godzone has suddenly let its mask slip. It's not a pretty sight, and the closer I look, the more I make out the face of Brian Tamaki. He is holding a banner that reads: "Smacking me won't teach me right from wrong".
But maybe that's just another one of those optical delusions I've been having lately.
Anke Richter, based in Lyttelton and born in West Germany, trained as a journalist in Los Angeles and worked as a reporter, writer, and producer for television shows and magazines in Germany, among them Playboy. She has written two books -- one about sabbaticals, the other about her time in Tokelau -- and is currently working on her third, as well as reporting as a foreign correspondent for German media. She writes a column on her immigrant's view of New Zealand for the German newspaper 'taz' and has contributed to The Listener, New Zealand Geographic, and Next. Her hobbies are not smocking and embroidery.