Review: Wait Till Father Gets Home

If the government can’t effectively regulate short line railways, it can’t regulate the subtleties of parenting. Still they try. For twenty years advocates have sought repeal of section 43 of the Criminal Code that sanctions “reasonable” spanking to correct youngsters’ behaviour. It was written in 1892 by a Catholic justice minister with nine children, and survived numerous court challenges and parliamentary hearings.

Québec author Marie-Aimée Cliche examines the practice: “Once it was accepted that the aim of parenting was to bring children up in the way they should, without spoiling or terrorizing them, what was the appropriate method to achieve this objective?”

Abuse or Punishment? is a lively investigation of spanking rooted in Biblical law and family culture. Cliche examines corporal punishment in Old Québec dating from the 19th century, but the research would interest any parent anywhere. This, from the first-ever Canadian parenting guide published in 1851: “Have you ever seen the little boy who can never be satisfied, who asks for bread and jam but throws it on the floor after a single bite?”

“This little one will drown his parents with sadness if they are unable to correct his bad  behaviour,” concluded the guide; “One should strike children only rarely, when other means of correction have proven ineffective.”

The modern debate dates from 1994 when police in London, Ont. charged a man for assaulting his five-year-old daughter in a parking lot. It had been a long hot day; the Peterson family was on a road trip from Warrenton, Ill. Little Rachel Peterson pushed her two-year old brother out of the car, then slammed the door on his fingers. Father David Peterson spanked her six times when a passerby called police; he was arrested, fingerprinted, strip-searched and spent the night in a London jail.

Peterson was acquitted at trial under section 43; the judge found him a “responsible, reasonable and caring parent”. The verdict prompted a Regina social worker to challenge the Criminal Code sanction, unsuccessfully. Justices ruled in 1994 that ordinary spanking was not, in fact, child abuse.

The judgment upheld conventional wisdom, Cliche notes; in 1864 Québec judges concluded spanking of six-year-olds was permitted so long as punishment did not involve “arbitrariness, whim, anger or ill-humour”, and was proportionate to the “nature of the offence”. Then and now, Rachel Peterson probably had it coming.

Abuse or Punishment? is fresh and beautifully researched. If use of physical force in parenting is technically legal, Cliche observes it has always provoked unease. She cites Canadians’ reaction to the Gagnon Trial of 1920, the most notorious case of child abuse of the era, when a Québec farm couple were convicted in the torture killing of a stepdaughter who was daily beaten, burned with a fireplace poker, tied to a table leg and forced to eat excrement and cleaning powder. Cliche notes that long afterward, “Madame Gagnon” was an everyday reference for parental abuse and second-guessing of corporal punishment. The case inspired four novels, a 1951 film and a popular Québec stage play so powerful the actress who played the abusive stepmother was personally accosted after performances.

Then, and now, parenting is an inexact science by fallible humans who mainly do their best. Abuse recounts a 1945 guide from Courrier de Radio Parents that remains as valid as the day it was published: “Draw the child’s attention to what is being asked,” the guide advised; “Only ask of what is strictly necessary, what is important, and forget the rest”; “Warn them ten or fifteen minutes in advance that you are going to ask them to do something”; “Think hard before giving an order; give it in clear, precise manner, display firmness, do not make conditions or concessions”; “Resort to authority or force only when children…have deliberately and knowingly refused to obey.”

By Holly Doan

Abuse Or Punishment? Violence toward Children in Quebec Families, 1850-1969; by Marie-Aimée Cliche; translated by W. Donald Wilson; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 408 pages; ISBN 9781-7711-20630; $36.74

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