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.

  11. Fran says:

    I live in Pennsylvania my grandson is 5 years old and is very hyper my daughter and her husband have a hard time handling him he is a very mouthy child at his age and my question is they smack him in the mouth sometimes because of his mouth I don’t feel that is appropriate they have used his buttocks several times but that does not phase him. I don’t like them smacking him in the mouth he’s too young I don’t feel it is appropriate is that considered abuse.

  12. As the article pointed out, there are no clear cut answers in this area. If you feel uncomfortable with the way your grandson is disciplined I suggest you point out the article to his parents and if it continues then consider contacting the police. A light tap on the mouth would probably be different than a strike hard enough to draw blood, but as a parent I think there are better forms of discipline than hitting the mouth.

  13. Chuck says:

    My daughters friend is 13, half way through puberty, and is beaten with a wooden paddle frequently for even the smallest offenses, and often when my child is present in their home. The child is already expressing hatred towards the father and suicidal thoughts. What can I do as a third party?

  14. You can call the local police or children and youth agency. This case might not be construed as criminal but I think Children and Youth might be interested in talking with dad about his choice of discipline.

  15. yvonne says:

    Does a non custodial parent have a right to spank my child?I have full legal custody.He’s been out of her life for all of her life until February.

  16. Generally the right to apply appropriate corporal punishment applies to: “the parent or guardian or other person similarly responsible for the general care and supervision of a minor or a person acting at the request of such parent, guardian or other responsible person.”

    The law is subject to change in the near future so I would suggest anyone thinking about applying corporal punishment in a situation that might be questioned should consult with a lawyer about the specific facts of that case before taking any action.

  17. Elle says:

    My 15 year old daughter can sneak out of the house at all hours, mistreat everyone in the household, call me curse words, and hit her siblings and no form of punishment seems to work. She is 5,9 and 180 lbs of muscle so putting her over my knee isn’t an option. She already has a reputation with local police.

    Yet I am not allowed to slap her in the mouth when the consistent streams of verbal abuse protrude daily. What has happened to a parents rights? My other children are well-adjusted and have no issues. It’s the one. And here I am at 1:40 am typing after searching for my unruly teen who snuck out of the house to make out with a new boyfriend. But I am not allowed to discipline and teach some respect without losing my job, my home, my respect in the community and worst of all my other children. How do you fix that when you have no more money because you are constantly paying for that same child’s mistakes (breaking other student’s phones, kicked of the bus within a month of school starting, the list goes on.). Any ideas?

  18. This sounds like a very tough situation. If she’s big and strong physical discipline is probably not the way to go, whether you are hitting her mouth or her behind. I suggest you seek some counseling through health insurance, school, or anywhere else you can get it. The blog article gives you the basics regarding the law. Best of luck. Steve

  19. Andrew says:

    Our 9 year old, after having been grounded repeatedly, losing priviledges, being spanked, etc, just absolutely refuses to be respectful to her teachers and other authorities. At first she responded to the spanking, but now seems immune. I’m afraid that doing so any harder may leave a mark. If it does, would that be viewed as child abuse? She doesn’t seem to respond to any other discipline. Thank you in advance

  20. It certainly could be. I think the type of mark would matter. A red handprint on her bottom would probably not be a problem. However, anything that could be considered a medical problem or unusual would be more likely to result in charges. The safest approach would be to only administer a traditional, very well aimed spank with the palm of the hand. If it is no longer working in corporal punishment should be replaced with another punishment that works better rather than intensified, or you may risk criminal charges as you continue to escalate the punishment in an effort to modify behavior.

  21. Buella says:

    My grandson is pretty defiant on some days. He has come a long way and I have researched and implemented so many techniques to not use spanking so it’s a last resort. However, it is the most effective when he is out of control and dangerous to get him back on track but to use a paddle seems to harsh. To use my hand seemed harsh as well I thought a foam flip flop was the safest to not cause any injury as that’s never the goal. I think it’s more about consistency, explaining the practice and staying calm. Is this appropriate and does anyone else do this besides Spanish grandparents.

  22. I have not heard of using a flipflop but your logic sounds good to me. The key is to make sure that you discipline the child without creating any risk of harm. I suppose that there is always the chance of harming a squirming child but I think that using a flip flop would demonstrate that there was no intent to injure.

  23. Ryan says:

    My daughter is 13 and lives in Pennsylvania with her mother & stepdad. We share parental rights. For the past two years her attitude towards me has gotten very hateful and she disrespects me over the phone all the time. I told her that when I come up there this weekend I was going to spank her because I am tired of her being disrespectful to me. I was told by her mother that I couldn’t touch her now that she’s 13 because of her age and if I did then I’d go to jail for sexual assault. I would like to know if this information is true. Thanks!

  24. Spanking is not sexual assault unless done for sexual gratification – obviously not in this case, although I suppose you should be careful as they could lie about it.

  25. Linda says:

    My ex husband and sixteen year old son have had several arguments that turned physical where my ex punched my son numerous times over the past year or two. CYS was contacted but never even showed up to question them. This last time my son finally stood up for himself and hit his dad back and broke his nose then ran away and called CYS again. My son is now being charged with felony assault! Is there something wrong here? We are in PA.

  26. It sounds like your son may have an excellent self-defense argument, especially since CYS was called and did not respond. There are very specific guidelines for self-defense so you should contact a lawyer (we can help you find someone if you aren’t close to us) and get a consultation specific to all the facts of your son’s case.

  27. Leah says:

    My friend’s mom smacked her other 12 year old daughter and her nose bled.. Could She go to jail for this? They live in Pennsylvania

  28. It would really depend on the circumstances, as outlined in the article. A punch to the nose hard enough to break it would probably result in charges. An intended slap to the face that accidentally hit the nose of a moving child, causing bleeding, probably wouldn’t. But again, caution should be exercised as there is great leeway in prosecutorial discretion for these cases.

  29. Veronica says:

    I have a child that is 13 and she got mad at me cause i punished her she went to school told her guidance counselor my mom punched me in the face when the guidance counselor asked her why she had no marks she told them she said it happened last month. They reported it to CPS and they are doing an investigation but i don’t understand why someone can lie, and have no evidence and i am still being investigated for 60 days. Which wouldn’t be so bad but now my daughter is out of control doing whatever she wants because of the case. Meanwhile i have 5 other children. I have hot her on her behind but with open hands never with closed hands, and my children all of them 6 together get hot maybe 3 times a year cause i think it should be a last resort. How do i prove i didn’t do something when it’s my word against hers

  30. Unfortunately you need to treat the CPS investigation as a possible criminal investigation as they normally report to the police any assault of a child reported to them, along with all statements and evidence they collected. I suggest that you get a good criminal defense lawyer involved immediately.

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