Can I Spank My Children, Legally?

Filed under: Criminal Law Tags: by Steven F. Fairlie @ August 2, 2011

Most Americans believe spanking has its place.  According to a recent ABCNEWS poll the public, by a 2-1 margin, approves of spanking children in principle. But what are the laws surrounding this issue?

Generally, when you strike another you can be liable for assault and battery (among other offenses). However, there are a few exceptions to this general rule. For instance, in Pennsylvania, like most states, parents are legally allowed to spank their children, within limits of course, without legal repercussion. Corporal punishment is the legal doctrine that provides a justification defense for parents who may spank their child for disciplinary purposes.

Specifically, the relevant section of the Pennsylvania Code permits parents to use reasonable supervision and control when raising their children. In doing so, parents or guardians responsible for the general care and supervision of their child may use force for the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the child, including the prevention or punishment of the child’s misconduct. Notably, the corporal punishment justification is only available so long as the force is not designed to cause or is not known to create a substantial risk of death, serious bodily injury, disfigurement, extreme pain, mental distress, or gross degradation.

What does all this mean? Caselaw on the issue provides markers for behavior that is justifiable and behavior that is not. Immersing your infant child in water cold enough to cause hypothermia would not be permissible under corporal punishment. On the other hand, disciplining a child by use of a wooden paddle on the child’s buttocks has been found to be justifiable where the force was used for purposes of punishing the child, not to cause extreme pain.  The Court held that the paddling was not sufficient to constitute the criminal offense of simple assault.

The nuances of this area are such that no one can safely endorse any physical altercation between parent and child.  If you would like more information or a formal legal opinion on this subject please contact one of our lawyers.  While you have the legal right to spank your child in Pennsylvania, it is imperative that you remain within the legal limits of the exercise of that authority. Failure to do so can result in a trip to your county courthouse for a spanking of another variety altogether.


  1. Fred Evans says:

    I live in michigan and have a mischievous little 3 year old. I love him like crazy but the only discipline that seems to work in most cases is spanking. What are my rights in michigan?
    Thank you so much!!
    Fred Evans

  2. We at Fairlie & Lippy, P.C. are only licensed in Pennsylvania and thus cannot advise you on the laws of Michigan. I suggest that you seek out local counsel. Good luck with your little one, and please be gentle with him at such a young age.

  3. Tom says:

    When I was a student at a Catholic high school in the 50s — I was in a class where the lay teacher disciplined his students by having them paddle each other with a 1″ thick wooden paddle. Is he performing a form of child abuse as many of the students were minors? Thank you for your time.

  4. I have to pass on this one as I was not even born yet in the 50’s and am guessing that the laws have changed since then. I would not advise a teacher to permit students to paddle each other under today’s laws and climate of political correctness. I think there would be a media firestorm and pressure upon the prosecutor to file charges.

  5. Taelar says:

    Well I am in Michigan, and my dad and my step mom use a belt and hit my little sister constantly when she is naughty is this legal in Michigan because It said on the news you cannot spank in Michigan anymore so I am pretty sure a belt is 10 times worse. And she’s only 5 turning 6

  6. Taelar says:

    Oh and there are no marks though

  7. Hitting with a belt may be hard to justify but I am not licensed in Michigan and thus cannot advise you. You need to contact a local lawyer or the police if you think they may injure her.

  8. It is probably tough to injure someone without leaving marks, but again you should contact the authorities or a lawyer in Michigan.

  9. Becky says:

    Today before school, my fiance was talking to his 12 year old about two F’s on his mid term report and the child was not listening to him and using his hat to not look at him. His father took the hat off of him and threw it into the kitchen, in hopes the boy would listen to him. The boy said to him, “what the f*** did you do that for?” This was the first time he swore at his dad but has been in trouble for swearing at school at other kids. My fiance stood him up and spanked him 3 times on the buttocks and lightly slapped his mouth after asking “what did you just say to me?, you will not swear at me and disrespect me”. The boy was crying of course, and he is from a broken home, (dad has custody except for every other weekend). The boy threatened his dad saying he was going to tell his mom and he would be in trouble……what are your thoughts on this?

  10. Corporal punishment like spanking is permitted in PA but it can’t ever cross the line to endangering the child. Never hit the face or head even lightly as that opens the door to misinterpretation. Limit spanking to reasonable spanks on the bottom. In this case if the child tells the truth it will likely be fine but your fiance should consult a lawyer.

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