A ruling that emerged last year from the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court may not be sitting very well with the state’s youngest residents. Literally.
The SJC there handed down a ruling that affirmed parents may not be found criminally liable for using “reasonable” force in disciplining their children. The court’s verbiage for the case, which centered around a father who had been convicted of assault for publicly spanking his young toddler daughter, was carefully worded, asserting that that the force used must be “reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor,” and does not cause physical harm or severe mental distress. At the same time, however, the ruling also invoked a broader context, finding that spanking as a form of corporal punishment “remains firmly woven into our nation’s social fabric.”
Most of us, it seems, would agree.
A large majority of Americans believe it is “sometimes appropriate” for parents to spank their children, according to a 2013 Harris Poll, and the percentage of those who think a child sometimes needs a “good, hard spanking” is also high. Although the trend of using corporal punishment for discipline has waned over the years, especially as more research shows the adverse effects of spanking on children, it continues on.
Americans are willing to tolerate a minimal level of corporal punishment if it’s intended to discipline, not cause pain. But do parents across the country have a legal right to use force against a child?
Can you legally spank your child?
The short answer is yes. In all 50 states and the District of Columbia, you are not forbidden by law to use corporal punishment on your child as long as the form of punishment is reasonable and does not cause injury.
Each state has its own definition of what is acceptable, and some states’ laws are more vague than others. For instance, Utah state law says that inflicting “serious physical injury” on a child is against the law, but the “reasonable discipline of minors” is an acceptable defense. Laws in Washington State, on the other hand, are more specific; they permit “reasonable and moderate” force against a child yet specifically outlaw throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child, shaking a child under 3, interfering with breathing, threatening with a deadly weapon, and more.
The word that appears over and over again in states’ statutes is “reasonable,” a standard that requires interpretation. That lack of clarity affords state attorneys some discretion in deciding which cases to prosecute.
The Gunderson National Child Protection Training Center has collected state statutes relevant to spanking so you can see exactly where your state stands on the issue.
Can you legally spank another person’s child?
This is where the law becomes murkier. Every state allows parents to discipline their children in a “reasonable” manner, but that right doesn’t necessarily extend to other adults, even if they are in loco parentis. So, if your child’s friend is playing in your house and you are acting as a temporary guardian, you may be fine, legally speaking, to spank that child. But you won’t have that same protection if, for example, you spank a neighbor child who keeps bouncing a ball on your window.
However, it’s better to refrain altogether from disciplining any child who is not your own. Even if you are unlikely to face a criminal charge, you could possibly face a civil suit from the child’s parents or guardians.
Can your child’s teacher legally spank him or her?
In 19 states, yes. The other 31 states have outlawed corporal punishment in the classroom for uses other than maintaining a safe environment. The amount of force an educator may use against a child in the remaining 19 states varies considerably, from allowing “reasonable and necessary” force to causing “no physical injury” to using “non-deadly force.”
It’s not uncommon for teachers to be arrested for child abuse. In March, a Los Angeles teacher was charged with child abuse for putting a plastic bag over a child’s head. And just this month, a Florida teacher was charged with aggravated abuse for digging his fingernails into a child’s hand and calf.
The line between “reasonable force” and “abuse”—and the consequences
Being convicted of child abuse could lead to jail time, loss of custody of the child, a heavy fine, and more. Because the consequences can be severe, it’s best not to test the limits of your state’s laws by using corporal punishment on any child, even your own. The line between “reasonable force” and “abuse” isn’t quantitative; it can only be evaluated in the eyes of the state prosecutor. As the recent controversy over Adrian Peterson shows, even if a parent believes his or her method of discipline is acceptable, the state may not agree (your spouse might not either; disagreements around parenting are a major cause of divorce).