When is Spanking Considered Child Abuse? And Why?
Updated: Apr 24, 2022
I have trained thousands of professionals on their obligations as mandated reporters of suspected child maltreatment. There are some situations where it is obvious that a child is being maltreated, like child sexual abuse, and immediate intervention is necessary. There are some situations, however, where two professionals with very similar professional training and experience will not see eye-to-eye on whether the case rises to the definition of "abuse" and/or whether government intervention is necessary. Many such situations relate to the use of "corporal punishment".
Corporal punishment involves the "deliberate infliction of pain intended to discipline" a "wrong-doer" and "reform their behavior". Spanking is a common form of corporal punishment, but corporal punishment includes many forms, such as: pinching, slapping, paddling, and hitting someone with a strap or belt.
"Washing someone's mouth out with soap" is also a form of corporal punishment. As is making someone stand and sit in an uncomfortable position or location for a period of time, withholding food or liquids, and/or denying access to the bathroom.
The use of corporal punishment against a child is legal for parents in all 50 states in the United States of America. In fact, corporal punishment, usually in the form of "paddling" is still allowed in some schools in 19 US states.
An international movement, centered on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has resulted in outlawing the use of corporal punishment against children at school and/or in the home in 63 countries.
Whether or not you have been subject to corporal punishment yourself, you might have particular feelings about whether such a form of discipline is appropriate.
Research on the use of corporal punishment generally and consistently shows it is ineffective as a form of "reform". Additionally, there are decades of research that show a correlation between the use of corporal punishment and increased behavior problems, as well as negative mental health outcomes for children.
But, regardless of what the research says, the law in the United States currently supports parent's rights to use of corporal punishment, at least in limited forms.
So, when is corporal punishment "child abuse"?
The law in all 50 states clearly defines child abuse as when a child has been injured by a parent's intentional (or non-accidental) actions. When corporal punishment causes injury, including bruising, swelling, scratches, and cuts, this is child physical abuse. When corporal punishment causes substantial risk of such injury, like when a child is hit with a dangerous implement, or in the face, it is also considered child physical abuse.
When the use of corporal punishment causes mental or emotional harm to a child, this might be considered abuse or neglect. But, such cases are harder to substantiate, since there might be many reasons a child suffers mental or emotional harm that have nothing to do with the use of corporal punishment.
Why don't we all agree?
With cases of child sexual abuse, there is universal understanding of wrongdoing by parents and caretakers. Why is the use of corporal punishment not so clear-cut?
Centuries of legislation and case law have squarely provided parents with considerable breadth in their rights to raise their children. Parents have the right to determine what their kids eat and what clothes they wear. Parents have the right to determine their children's education and their medical care (with limited exceptions).
The right to use corporal punishment has even been the subject of a famous United States Supreme Court decision. In Ingraham v. Wright, 9 male justices of the United States Supreme Court decided that the use of corporal punishment in schools WAS constitutional. This decision wasn't decided in the 19th century. This decision was decided in 1977!!!
In 2021, the American Family Survey found more than half of men surveyed (54%) agree that spanking might sometimes be necessary, while only 42% of women felt the same way. Black and Hispanic respondents were more likely than White respondents to agree that spanking might sometimes be necessary. Liberal respondents were less likely than conservative respondents to agree that spanking might sometimes be necessary. And, the more years of formal education a respondent had, the less likely they were to agree that spanking might sometimes be necessary. Respondents who regularly attend religious services were most likely to agree than spanking might sometimes be necessary.
Efforts towards change
Younger adults are less likely to agree that spanking might sometimes be necessary. Assuming that trend remains over time, it is likely we will see policy changes in the coming decade that restricts the rights of schools and parents to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline.
Impact on Mandated Reporting of Suspected Child Abuse
For the time-being, though, the decision to report corporal punishment to child protective services needs to be rooted in current law. Parents have the right to use corporal punishment as a form of discipline with their children, as long as they don't step over the line into excessive or abusive behavior.
As a professional reporter, if you are uncomfortable with the use of corporal punishment, you still have options. I recommend familiarizing yourself with the resources shared through this post, for starters. That way, you can have fruitful, even if difficult, conversations with parents about other options for disciplining their children.