Criminal Consequences of Spanking Your Children

Learn how the law views spanking and corporal punishment.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated January 11, 2022

People disagree on whether spanking children for disciplinary purposes is good or bad. Although less common than it used to be, spanking (a type of corporal punishment) still occurs frequently in American society. Courts have decided that parents have a constitutional right to raise their families as they see fit, at least, up to a point. That point—for criminal purposes—is generally when corporal punishment becomes excessive or improper or inflicts serious injuries.

This article will focus on spanking as a form of corporal punishment. Spanking is generally viewed as a discipline method where a person inflicts temporary pain on a child without inflicting injury and with the intent to modify the child's behavior.

Are Parents Allowed to Spank Their Children?

The short answer is yes—but only if reasonable, necessary, and appropriate.

Parents' Limited Right to Discipline

A parent's right to raise their child as they see fit generally includes the ability to discipline, as long as the disciplinary measure is reasonable and the child doesn't suffer injuries. Spanking that involves inflicting short, temporary pain to correct behavior would fall under this definition (such as an open-hand hit of a child's clothed buttocks). However, when spanking results in serious harm, is excessive, or is done to hurt the child (not as discipline), it can quickly cross the line to unreasonable and possibly criminal.

State Laws on Reasonable Discipline

State laws don't necessarily "permit" spanking or hitting of a child. Rather, they go about it the opposite way by not prohibiting it. Here's how it generally works.

For discipline that is determined to be reasonable, state criminal laws either:

  • justify the use of force and provide a defense to any criminal charges (like assault), or
  • make an exception so that definition of a particular crime (usually child abuse) doesn't include parental discipline or corporal punishment.

Justified use of force. State laws have several scenarios under which the use of force is justified and not considered a crime. For instance, a police officer who uses force against someone resisting arrest has a defense that the force was justified, as does someone who uses force to prevent an assault. Some states include within these justifications a parent or guardian who uses reasonable and appropriate force against a child to maintain discipline or correct behavior.

Exception. Other states exclude reasonable parental discipline from the definition of a crime. For example, a state's child abuse statute might provide that the definition of abuse does not include "reasonable use of force by a parent to discipline a child." Or the law might exclude corporal punishment by a parent from its definition of physical force.

Under these laws, the underlying act of spanking or hitting might be a crime in most scenarios, but the state has decided to butt out of these areas when it comes to parenting and reasonable discipline.

Where's the Line Between Spanking and Abuse?

The line between spanking and abuse isn't always a clear one. Most states draw the line at "reasonable" discipline but vary on what is considered reasonable. Whether a parent will face criminal charges can even depend on how society views spanking and corporal punishment at the time.

Possible Criminal Charges for Spanking

Most states provide that using force against your child constitutes assault, battery, child abuse, or domestic violence, when:

  • the discipline causes serious injury, not just discomfort
  • the amount of force used is unreasonable, excessive, or improper, or
  • its purpose is something other than correcting inappropriate or dangerous behavior.

For instance, spanking that leaves a child with lasting injuries, significant bruising, or lacerations likely wouldn't be reasonable. Spanking or disciplining using an object (such as a whip, switch, or belt) could also be found improper or excessive. And spanking one's child out of anger not associated with the child's behavior (say after getting fired from work) isn't considered discipline, so reasonableness isn't even factored into the equation.

Even if the punishment is generally considered reasonable, other factors could make it unreasonable or excessive under the law. These factors might include the child's age, size, and physical or mental conditions, the amount of force, location of the injury, or location of the punishment. For instance, inflicting the same punishment on a two-year-old as a 12-year-old would likely be found unreasonable. Inflicting punishment in a degrading manner, such as requiring a child to undress and be spanked in front of others, would also likely be unreasonable.

Criminal Penalties for Spanking

If a parent's spanking or discipline isn't reasonable under the law, the parent may face criminal charges for assault, battery, child abuse, or domestic violence. Most states' statutes penalize these types of crimes based on the injuries sustained to the victim and the offender's criminal history of committing similar crimes.

Crimes resulting in bodily harm generally have misdemeanor penalties that include possible jail time of up to one year and fines or probation. If the offense results in serious bodily injury, penalties often bump up to felonies that might include prison time or probation. The same is true for repeat offenders. Even if the current offense is a misdemeanor, a second or subsequent conviction could mean felony penalties. As for offenses resulting in great bodily harm or a risk of death, a person would most certainly be looking at a felony and prison time.

Additional Consequences: Child Protection or Welfare Proceedings

Causing injury to your child can also result in child protection or welfare proceedings, where the state petitions the court to limit or terminate one's parental rights. These cases typically arise when a person makes a complaint to a child protective services agency or the police.

Many people who work with children, such as teachers and doctors, are required to report any suspected child abuse. Child protection 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.

Can You Spank Someone Else's Child?

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 to your own child might be considered battery if done to your child's playmate or a neighbor child.

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.

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