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Child Discipline: Using Force Against Your Teenager?

Can A Teenage Child Be Disciplined With Force?

Many parents are driven to desperation, unsure of what child discipline approach to use that is legal and yet effective. In 2004, the Supreme Court of Canada considered the constitutionality of section 43 of the Criminal Code in the case, Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law. Canada (Attorney General), (2004) 234 D.L.R. (4th ) 257.

Section 43 is the section of the Criminal Code that provides a defence to parents and teachers who use force to discipline a child. The section reads:

“Every school teacher, parent, or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction toward a pupil or child, as the case may be, who is under his care, if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances.”

Then in 2006, a father was criminally charged for assaulting his 15-year-old daughter. He relied on section 43 to defend himself on this charge. The father’s name is Barry. He was 57 years old and was married for 37 years. He and his wife raised their 4 daughters. This case related to his youngest daughter.

The daugther was rebellious. She had been sneaking out at night without her parents’ permission and was not attending school. The parents were most concerned about her relationship with her boyfriend. They believed him to be violent and involved with drugs. They also suspected their daughter was taking drugs.

In their own words, they ‘ran out of answers’. They turned to the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) for help. She was placed in their care. Through the court process, orders were made restraining her boyfriend from having any contact with her.

Subsequently, CAS returned their daughter to the family home for a weekend visit. After hearing a suspicious noise in the house, Barry found the boyfriend in his daughter’s bedroom. He held the boyfriend until the police arrived. The police arrested and charged the boyfriend.

On Thanksgiving weekend, their daughter left the home, again without permission. Barry went to look for her and found her with the boyfriend. They ran away. When Barry found them, they were both visibly under the influence of drugs. The boyfriend confronted Barry. Again, the boyfriend was arrested. Their daughter returned to CAS.

Deciding between child rights and child discipline

On November 18, 2006, the parents met with their daughter and her social worker at the CAS office. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the child’s return to the family home. It was agreed that she would go home for the weekend.

After leaving the office, the parents and their daughter went shopping and later went to a restaurant for dinner. After they arrived home, the mother overheard their daughter on the telephone making plans to attend a party where the boyfriend would be. The mother told her daughter that she could not go. She did not listen and left the home on her bike.

When Barry arrived home, he went to look for his daughter and found her on a payphone at a campground. He told her that she had to come home. She refused to go with him. He grabbed her by the shirt and took her to his truck. She broke loose, at which time Barry picked up her bike and put it in the back of his truck. He drove a short distance away, but decided to return.

At trial, he testified, “I put the bike in the back and then I decided I’d head home, and then I had second thoughts. I said, no, I can’t leave her here because I don’t know where she’s going and I’m concerned, so I went back. I hadn’t driven very far. I went back and got her and then put her in the truck.”

He grabbed her by the shirt and this time put her in the truck. They argued on the way home. Upon their arrival, Barry asked her to get out of the truck, but she refused. When he tried to take her out, she kicked him in the groin. He pulled her out of the truck by the arm and both went into the home.

The child began to argue with her mother and left the house again. She returned to the payphone and arranged for someone to pick her up and take her to the party so that she could meet her boyfriend. However, by the time she got to the party, he had left. The parents stayed at home for a period of time, having decided not to try and find their child again. They changed their minds and after the mother found out the location of the party, they drove to the house, arriving there at about 2:10 am.

When they arrived, a group of people swarmed their vehicle. Barry called the police, who arrived shortly afterwards. Their child was outside of the house, yelling and screaming. As a result, one of the officers placed her in a police cruiser. She told this officer that she had been assaulted by her father and, as a result, she was taken to the hospital where she was examined.

Later that day, Barry was arrested. At trial, the judge interpreted the law to exclude the section 43 defence for assaults against teenagers. He concluded that Barry’s actions did not constitute ‘correction’ or ‘discipline’ and that the daughter was not capable of benefiting from such correction. Barry was found guilty. Barry appealed.

Justice Robertson heard his appeal on January 28, 2008, and released judgment on March 13, 2008.

Justice Robertson stated that “the overall theme of the case is that while conflict between children and authority figures is normal, violence is not an acceptable response. Section 43 protects children from abuse yet allows authority figures, including parents, to carry out corrective duties to children. It is meant to ensure that minor matters do not result in criminalized parenting.”

The appellate court found that Barry rescued his child when she did not want to be rescued. His daughter exercised poor judgment requiring intervention and guidance. This child was in need of protection from her own bad choices. She was not injured. Despite the return home of the child by force, she continued to rebel and went to the party. Her night ended when she was placed in a police cruiser.

Justice Robertson stated that the Supreme Court of Canada did not grant immunity to teenagers for bad behaviour, or an exemption to parents from the crime of assault. It offered support for authorities and families by striking a careful balance between the rights of children to be protected, and the responsibilities of parents or authorities to provide correction and discipline.

The court also considered the concept of “being capable of benefiting from the correction”. The fact that a child will not immediately respond to correction or that the benefit of the correction is not directly visible does not mean that section 43 is not applicable. A positive benefit or consequence of correction is not always immediately obvious in children.

In the end, Justice Robertson stated, “I find the father was justified in his use of force to correct his teenage daughter.” Child discipline, even when you use force, can therefore be admissible if used as a way of correcting, not harming child.

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