The biblical adage, “spare the rod, spoil the child” is still permissible advice for parents in Ontario – for now. In a 3-0 ruling in mid-January, the Ontario Court of Appeal decided that parents, guardians, and teachers can use reasonable force to correct a child’s behaviour, and not be charged with physical assault. Writing for his two colleagues, Mr. Justice David McCombs argued the 110-year old Section 43 of the Criminal Code permits parents to apply “strictly limited corrective force to children without criminal sanctions.” The decision states that children under the age of two cannot be spanked, while older children can be physically disciplined only with a parent’s bare hand.

Opponents of spanking, such as the Canadian Federation of Children, Youth and the Law (CFCYL), and the Ontario Association of Children’s Aid Societies, which were granted intervenor status in the case, argued spanking is unconstitutional, as it allows children to be subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, and threatens their security of the person.

For the most part, the court’s decision was praised by pro-family groups. Claudio Violatto, of the National Foundation for Family Research, told The Interim he believes “the right decision was made (by the court). There is no evidence that spanking by reasonable parents to correct damaging behaviour has any bad consequences.”

He added that while corporal punishment should not be used as a first corrective – he advocates verbal reprimands, positive reinforcements, and “time-outs” – and that society needs to “carefully distinguish between abusive and appropriate discipline,” nearly 90 per cent of parents spank because it is effective in curbing bad behaviour. “Parents should be able to spank,” said Mr. Violatto, “especially if the behaviour is dangerous, such as to prevent children from hitting other kids.”

Still, not all pro-family commentators were pleased by the Court’s decision. In an Edmonton Sun column titled “Spanking Verdict Was No Victory,” Ted Byfield complained that even after the ruling, parents are still unduly restricted in how they may discipline their children, and the court will only bring more government into the lives of Ontarians. “If a 14-year-old, sprawled out on the couch, tells his father to go to hell, the father is allowed to spank his butt with the palm of his hand,” wrote Mr. Byfield. “If the kid’s response is to smash the father in the face with his fist, the father’s only recourse is to call in the police, who will call the social workers, who will call in the counsellors. The state, once again, must come to the rescue of the family. Pretty soon we won’t need the family, only the state.”

Having been defeated once already by a lower court, anti-spanking groups may take their case to the Supreme Court. As Paul Shabas, a lawyer representing the CFCYL told reporters, “I’m disappointed they kept a section in the code that treats children different from the rest of us and that children can still be hit based on a notion that it instills a form of learning … we don’t support the use of corporal punishment as ever being justified.”