Family Law

Spare the Rod: Is Spanking Child Abuse?

In years past, teachers silently instilled fear in their young students by displaying the wooden "paddle" on the classroom wall, as a reminder of the standard punishment for misbehavior. Today the paddle has been replaced with a "time-out" chair, a pass to the school office or a telephone call home. On the home front, however, the debate still rages as to whether spanking is proper punishment for children or is instead an abusive form of discipline.

  • State laws and state administrative regulations vary as to the appropriate forms of punishment in different settings, including schools, day care centers and homes
  • Student handbooks and staff rules may define what forms of punishment are allowed in the school setting
  • Parents should thoroughly review with day care providers the forms of discipline which the parents will and will not authorize

State Laws and Regulations Are Often General Rather Than Specific

In general, state laws and state administrative regulations provide only general guidance as to whether corporal punishment (i.e. spanking) is prohibited in a given setting or as to certain persons. As yet, state laws do not tightly restrict a parent's ability to discipline their children by spanking. However, if the spanking is of a duration, means or force that is unreasonable under the circumstances, local child welfare agencies may define it as abusive according to their administrative regulations.

Many factors will be considered by child welfare agencies who are investigating allegations of abuse. The child's age, size and general health, and whether the child has developmental or other disabilities will be considered. Any time that the "punishment" leaves bruises, welts, scars or open wounds is cause for alarm. If an object is used for the spanking, its characteristics and type will be considered. Even if the "spanking" is done with an open hand, if it is done for an extended duration or repeatedly, or with such force that the child is left with marks, bruises or broken skin, the agency will likely be concerned and may reach conclude that the parent has abused the child.

A parent may find himself or herself on the defensive once the agency opens an investigation of alleged child abuse. The identity of the person who made the report to the agency will not be revealed, and the agency will likely interview the child, the parents, and other witnesses such as the reporting witness, teachers, day care providers and grandparents. A parent should, if possible, seek the representation of an attorney during this investigative process to help safeguard the parent's rights and to keep check on the agency's procedures.

If the child welfare agency has concluded that the parent has abused or neglected a child, it is essential that the parent immediately seek representation by an attorney. Once such an "indicated finding" has been made, there is a very limited window of time in which the parent can seek a review, by the agency and then by the courts, of that finding. Such an indicated finding will remain on a person's record and may prevent the parent from working in many areas including day care, education and health care.

School Handbooks May Define Permissible Forms of Punishment

Parents are often concerned about the forms of discipline to which their students may be subjected in the event of misconduct. Consult the current version of your school's student discipline handbook to review these parameters. If your student reports that some teachers are using corporal punishment but the handbook prohibits it, contact your school principal and request a personal meeting. Parents will want to weigh carefully the decision to involve an attorney in their communication with the school. The school-parent relationship is a delicate one, and free communication from the school to the parent may cease abruptly if an attorney becomes involved.

Some smaller schools might not have written student handbooks or policies. In such cases, it will be helpful to review with your school's teachers and administrators the expected and permissible means of student discipline.

Review Your Day Care Provider's Practices

The acceptable methods and forms of punishment of children vary widely across time and cultures. In some cultures, physically striking or spanking a child is viewed as an acceptable and effective method of instilling discipline and proper behavior. In others, isolation, removing of privileges or verbal assaults are acceptable.

If your child is with a day care provider for any extended time during the day, the provider will likely be making decisions about punishment. It is important to review with your provider, by the time the child is nine months old, the punishment methods you will and will not allow the provider to administer with your child. If you have any doubts that the provider may stray from your requests, it is a good idea to reduce them to writing and give your day care provider a copy. Pay attention to your child's account of how and why the children are disciplined. If you have any concerns about the punishment used, immediately request a date to meet privately with your provider (outside the hearing range of the child) to review the situation.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do laws and regulations on physical punishment of children apply in private school settings? Should the contracts related to my child's enrollment in a private school address this issue, and should discipline policies be in writing?
  • What is the "gray area" regarding spanking? Should I just avoid spanking if I'm involved in a situation such as a custody dispute where it could become an issue?
  • Does our school district allow for physical punishment? If district policy allows it, can I, as a parent of a student, forbid school personnel from touching my child in such a manner?
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