Real Life

‘I broke the cycle of violence’

Robynn Kopua thought smacking was the only way to discipline kids – until a playgroup showed her how to spare the rod.

Coming home from school each day, Robynn Kopua never knew what to expect. “Every day I wondered which oum was going to be there – good oum or bad oum,” she says. “Her way was to hit and hit harder for anything and everything.”

These days, Robynn (48) is president of the Playcentre Federation and a loving mother of five. Her violent childhood, growing up in a small seaside community near Wellington with her sisters and two brothers, is a world away from the kind and caring upbringing she works hard to give her own children.

“oy mother Jean was a stay-at-home mum,” says Robynn. “Being one of nine children with strict Scottish parents, she had a tough childhood herself. Stories she told about her upbringing made our blood curdle.”

Robynn remembers living in fear of her mother’s violent mood swings. “She used whatever she could get her hands on – a jug cord, the vacuum cleaner hose, a strap – whatever. It was just the way it was.”

Even family meals could spark the abuse. “I don’t like bread. oum used to make me sandwiches for lunch. I was only eight and too young to work out how to get rid of them so I hid them behind the boiler. After a while, the boiler cupboard became full of mice.

“I denied it but oum knew it was me. I remember being on my bed with my hands over my head trying to protect myself. The buckle on the strap made a dent in my forehead. When a neighbour noticed it, oum told them I had ringworm.”

Her mother tried to excuse her violent behaviour with the familiar clichés – “I’m only doing this for your own good” and “this is hurting me more than it is hurting you” but the effect on Robynn and her siblings was predictable.

“I was such a withdrawn child, really quiet. I didn’t have good friendships – I didn’t know how.”

Robynn was 18 years old when her mother attacked her for the last time as she arrived home from a work party. “oum grabbed an umbrella and kept hitting me.”

Now Robynn questions if her mother, who has since passed away, had a mental health problem.

“There were some good times. When she was good, she was lots of fun. But the violence was constant.”

Robynn’s father Ken was the opposite. “He only smacked me once. I couldn’t find my Sunday school book and Dad was furious. He smacked me on the leg. Later, he found the book in his pocket and apologised.”

But Ken worked long hours, so he left the raising of the family to Jean. “He knew how oum was,” says Robynn. “I can’t respect Dad as he didn’t stop it. He didn’t stick up for us.”

Robynn says she was labelled “thick” at an early age and her mum didn’t believe she would ever hold down a full-time job. Her parents bought a dairy with the plan that she would work there when she left school. She never did.

“I have a strong streak in me and I had to prove them wrong.”

Her mother would not let her leave home to go flatting, so Robynn viewed marriage as the only way out. She wed and had two children, Steven (27) and Brendan (25), from her first marriage. When Steven was born, Robynn remembers looking at him and thinking, “You are never going to have a smack.”

But when he was joined by brother Brendan, things became more difficult. “I had let them run riot. I didn’t know there were alternatives. In the end, I smacked them,” she says.

Fearful of her repeating her own violent upbringing, Robynn set rules. She would only smack her kids on the bottom and there had to be a very good reason. It worked, but Robynn admits it was not effective discipline.

Even as an adult, Robynn’s mother continued to control her life. “I have a vivid memory of my mother forcing egg down Brendan’s throat, saying children would not dictate to her what they wanted to eat.”

Robynn met second husband Rob in 1983 and together they had Gabrielle (14), Cameron (12) and Tyler (10). Robynn carried on parenting the only way she knew. The turning point came when she started at Normandale Playcentre in 1992.

“We were greeted by a boy who poured water over Gabrielle. I was indignant and expected his mum to tell him off. Instead, she asked him to think how Gabrielle felt having water poured over her head.

“This approach to discipline was new to me. Through Playcentre, I learned to use positive, non-violent ways of managing kids’ behaviour. Before long, I was telling the children what to do instead of what not to do. I didn’t need to smack any more.

“I brought up my youngest three children very differently to Steven and Brendan. They had the freedom to explore but learned to be responsible. If they made a mess, they had to help clear it up. They learned about consequences and respect for other people’s feelings.”

Robynn is proud that her eldest sons Steven and Brendan grew into happy, well-adjusted adults and the whole family still enjoy time together. Despite leaving school without qualifications, Robynn went on to get a Diploma in Teaching Early Childhood Education and a Bachelor of Education.

As well as her Playcentre work, Robynn works four days a week as a tutor at the Wellington Nannies College. She believes there would be a significant decrease in family violence if more families were supported by Playcentre, and she is passionate about making it accessible to new parents.

Robynn is all in favour of the proposed repeal of Section 59 of the Crimes Act to remove the defence to assault charges of “reasonable” force in disciplining a child. (Although the repeal Bill passed its first reading last year, it now seems likely Section 59 will stay, but with amended wording.)

“It’s not okay to hit children with jug cords or cricket bats and people should be punished for that. I don’t think you would see police stepping in if a parent smacked their child across the leg for running on the road.

 “What I’ve learned is it actually only takes one generation to change things in a family. My parents didn’t know any better but I’ve taken two steps forward. I don’t think my children would even think to hit.

“oy big boys are great people but their confidence is much lower than that of my younger children. My younger ones look at adults as equals. They’re not obnoxious – they just have learned to question. I feel such pride and amazement about that.” Jennie Scotcher

Playcentre started in the 1940s and is unique to New Zealand. Its philosophy is based on child-initiated play and the importance of parents as educators of their own children. Today, there are about 15,000 children attending Playcentres in New Zealand.

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