Last week’s news that New Zealand school students are among the worst behaved in the OECD came as quite a surprise. On reflection, it probably shouldn’t have.

My immediate reaction was one of embarrassment.

Those inside the education system were not so surprised. The Education Review Office stated that “we know that disruptive classroom behaviour is a significant and persistent issue in New Zealand.” They continued with the following. “…over the last 20 years our classroom behaviour has been amongst the worst in the OECD.” If that’s not bad enough, their final comment summed up. “But we know it is getting worse, with over half of teachers saying all types of disruptive behaviour had become worse in the last two years.”

So the ERO wasn’t surprised by last week’s announcement, and once we apply our minds to the issue, we shouldn’t be surprised either.

Back in 2005 the law colloquially known as the “anti-smacking bill” was introduced to parliament. Two years later, after much rigorous and sometimes acrimonious debate, it was passed into law in May 2007. Today’s year 12 and 13 students were born about the same time.

Much of the debate at the time centred around that fact that our child abuse statistics had become quite appalling and the extension to that was our child murder rates. Some people saw the introduction of the anti-smacking law as a deterrent for such violence. Which of course it never was. And as things have played out, it hasn’t been.

Sadly we continue to abuse and kill children in this country and in 2024 we have baby Ru, just as 2006 brought us the tragedy that was the Kahui twins.

In the meantime, well-meaning parents had to find new ways to discipline their kids. Many of us grew up in an era where a smack on the bottom was often delivered as a consequence for poor behaviour. For the most part, it didn’t do us any harm. That generation had respect for school teachers and the police. We understood consequences.

But in the mid 2000’s many of those well-meaning parents struggled with meaningful ways to discipline their kids. To teach them about the consequences of poor behaviour. The fear of being criminally charged in return for a smack on the legs in a supermarket aisle became something to fear.

The majority of parents were able to adapt. Quiet time. Devices being locked away. Privileges being taken away. These measures, and others, have been applied where a flick across the leg may have previously done the trick.

But some parents have not adapted. As a result some, but not all kids have grown up in an environment where discipline and consequences are neither practiced nor understood.

Fast forward twenty years and we have trouble with teenagers. Today’s 20 year olds have experienced woke ideology at every stage of their upbringing culminating in poor values and a lack of consequences for bad behaviour.

The ram raiders of the last three years are predominantly graduates of the post anti smacking era. The boy racers terrorizing neighbourhoods are another such group.

Somewhere in between a consequence-free childhood and a ram raiding teenager is someone who has misbehaved at school.

This column does not profess a return to corporal punishment. As stated above, for the most part, parents have worked it out. And if we’re being honest, it was never comfortable witnessing a child getting a hiding from a distraught parent in a carpark at the mall.

We have a new government professing a clamp down on crime. Among their policies are the intention to send the worst young offenders to military style boot camps. There are plenty of people who are against such policies. But those people are not coming up with any other solutions.

During our recent Leaders Getting Coffee podcast, our guest, retired army Colonel Tenby Powell talked about the last time we ran such boot camps. He talked about broken young men arriving at camp lacking decent values or any form of personal pride. He then talked about the transformation of those young men who left the environment seven or eight weeks later with a new found identity and a spring in their step.

But the problem he said, was that most of those young people went back to the environment from which they came. Some had wanted to stay, to have a career in the army. But due to prior convictions, they were unable to.

The lesson we must learn is this. It isn’t enough to give our misbehaving young people a taste of what acceptable behaviour looks like. We need to provide those people with a programme through which they can change their outlook for the long term.

A seven week boot camp is just a taste. What do we do with them then? Whilst it is a reasonable investment for the taxpayer, we are also making these disobedient youngsters to invest too. They will have to give up time, energy and in many cases their own bad boy street credibility, just to attend.

The goal must be to take these kids off the streets for the long term. To turn them into contributing members of society. If they can prove, over those seven or eight weeks, that they are up for that, let’s offer them another seven or eight weeks. Stage two if you like.

And then perhaps a six month opportunity. And maybe, if they can reform fully, a career.

And at the other end of the spectrum, let’s have a close look at today’s five year olds and ask … how do we stop this from ever happening again?

This article was published on ZB Plus on Thursday 11 April, 2024.

Bruce Cotterill is a company director and adviser to business leaders. He is the author of the book, The Best Leaders Don’t Shout, a regular NZ Herald columnist and host of the NZME’s podcast, Leaders Getting Coffee.