Standing on the sidewalk with your three-year-old, she pulls away from you and starts running toward a busy street. To her, it is a game, but to you, it is a life-threatening situation. You grab her just as she heads into the street and deliver a swift smack on the bum with an admonition, “No running in the street!” Startled, she stops. Have you just committed a crime?
People disagree on whether spanking is good or bad. Many European countries have banned spanking outright. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has outlawed all physical discipline, even within families. However, the vast majority of American parents spank their young children at some point, and most Americans believe that spanking is a legitimate form of discipline. Although less common than it used to be, spanking is pervasive in our society. However, anyone who spanks a child should know that sometimes spanking has criminal consequences.
While all states currently permit spanking at home, some states have outlawed spanking is schools and daycares, and most states discourage or outlaw spanking in foster homes and institutions for children.
For more information, see Criminal Consequences of Spanking in Schools.
What is Spanking?
Spanking, also called corporal punishment, is a discipline method in which a person inflicts pain on a child without inflicting injury and with the intent to modify the child’s behavior. Forms of corporal punishment include hitting a child’s bottom, slapping, grabbing, shoving, or hitting a child with a belt or paddle.
A Parent’s Limited Right to Spank
Currently, parents in all states have a limited right to spank their children. Courts have decided that parents have a constitutional right to raise their children as they see fit, including using whatever method of discipline they think is best. Whether by statute or by legal opinion, states permit parents to use physical discipline against their children as long as it is done in moderation and does not cause injury.
Under Georgia’s laws, for example, physical discipline may be used as long as the child is not injured. (Ga. Code. Ann. §§ 19-7-5, 19-15-1.) In California, parents are allowed to use “reasonable and age-appropriate spanking to the buttocks” as long as there is no serious physical injury to the child. (Cal. Welf. & Inst. Code § 300(a).)
For example, spanking a six-year-old child twice on the bottom, where the spanking causes no injury and only fleeting discomfort, would probably be considered lawful under Georgia’s and California’s laws, as well as in other states. However, striking the same six-year-old numerous times with a belt, causing lacerations, bruising, and pain that lasted for days, could be considered child abuse.
The Line Between Spanking and Abuse
The line between spanking and abuse is not always a clear one, and state prosecutors and judges generally decide on a case-by-case basis whether discipline crosses the line. Using physical force against your child may constitute assault, battery, child abuse, or domestic violence when:
- the discipline causes injury, not just discomfort
- the amount of force used is unreasonable, or
- it’s purpose is something other than correcting inappropriate or dangerous behavior.
Child Dependency Consequences
Causing injury to your child can also result in dependency proceedings, where the state petitions the court to limit or terminate your parental rights. These cases typically arise when a person makes a complaint to Child Protective Services (CPS). Many people who work with children, such as teachers and doctors, are required to report any suspected child abuse. CPS then launches an investigation to determine if the child has been abused or is in danger. If so, the state may file a petition to have the child declared a dependent of the court and provide continued monitoring and services to the family, or in very serious cases, remove the child from the home.
While parents have a limited right to use force against their own children for discipline, a person who is not a child’s parent or caregiver does not necessarily have any right to use force against a child. What could be considered lawful spanking if done to your own child might be considered battery if done to your child’s playmate or a neighbor child.
A conviction for assault, battery, or child abuse can have serious consequences. Depending on the circumstances, a conviction can result in time in prison or jail, a fine, probation, and counseling.
Obtaining Legal Assistance
If you are charged with a crime as a result of spanking your child, you should talk to a local criminal defense attorney. An attorney can tell you what to expect in court, based on the charges, the law in your state, and the local judge and prosecutor. An attorney can help you understand your options and present the strongest defense in your case so that you can achieve the best possible outcome.