Is it a Crime to Spank Your Child?

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Last week, Massachusetts’ highest court established legal guidelines for the use of physical punishment by parents. The court ruled that a parent or guardian cannot be subject to criminal liability for the use of force on a minor child as long as the force used was “reasonable” and was related to “the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor, including the prevention or punishment of the minor’s misconduct.” With this ruling, the court overturned the assault and battery conviction of a man who spanked his 3-year old daughter in view of two police officers.

In Washington, RCW 9A.16.100 of the criminal code establishes a similar framework:

  1. Physical discipline of a child is not unlawful when it is reasonable and moderate and is inflicted by a parent, teacher, or guardian for purposes of restraining or correcting a child.
  2.  Any use of force on a child by any other person is unlawful, unless it is reasonable and moderate and is authorized in advance by the child’s parent or guardian for purposes of restraining or correcting a child.

This statute provides a non-exclusive list of actions that are presumed unreasonable even when used to correct or restrain a child:

  1. Trowing, kicking, burning, or cutting a child
  2. Striking a child with a closed fist
  3. Shaking a child under the age of 3
  4. Interfering with a child’s breathing
  5. Threatening a child with a deadly weapon
  6. Any other act that is likely to cause and does cause bodily harm greater than transient pain or minor temporary marks


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