Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer
Please enter a legal issue and/or a location
Begin typing to search, use arrow keys to navigate, use enter to select

Find a Lawyer

More Options

Is It Legal to Spank Your Kids?

Updated by Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Legally reviewed by Joseph Fawbush, Esq. | Last updated on

Hitting your children and corporal punishment more generally have been a contentious topic for some time, and norms vary based on culture. The morality and effectiveness of the practice is a sensitive topic for many parents in the United States. But what about the legality of it?

As with many laws governing crimes and family matters, the legal guidance on physically disciplining your kids comes at the state level. There is no federal law that addresses the issue.

At the state level, you won’t find statutes that cover “spanking” (or “whooping,” or whatever your regionalism is). No state has specifically made spanking your child at home illegal, although some have outlawed corporal punishment in schools. Instead, you’ll often find these types of actions covered under laws about child abuse or child neglect. When it can be proven that parents hit their kids not out of discipline, but out of malice, cruelty, or anger, it is child abuse.

Parental Privilege and Degree of Care

In Florida, for example, the state’s Supreme Court has articulated a “parental privilege” that can be raised as an affirmative defense to child abuse, saying that “a parent, or one in parental authority, such as appellant, enjoys a privilege of corporal punishment.”

Some states require a “minimum degree of care” from the parent meting out the discipline. The parent is obligated to avoid “unreasonably inflicting excessive corporal punishment” on the child. Factors that go into this assessment include: the age of the child, the number of times the parent hits the child, the number of different locations in which the child was struck, how vulnerable was the area that was hit, and the degree of damage, as evidenced by after-the-fact marks on the body. New Jersey has found evidence of child abuse when a child as young as three years old was hit multiple times in different locations, including a vulnerable area, resulting in red and green marks several inches long. The child was hit “for reporting to a neighbor that they did not have electricity” and “to ensure that child would not end up on the streets or doing drugs.”


Pundits and parents have argued for decades over whether spanking is child abuse. Spanking opponents may not see the disciplinary act as any different than slapping your child in the face or beating him or her with a switch. Laws often track closely with popular consensus on the value of a certain form of conduct, so it's no surprise that there is little agreement between states about whether spanking is illegal child abuse. Some states recommend a bare, open hand to the buttocks. On the other hand, in states like Oklahoma, discipline can be legally accomplished by way of spanking, switching, or paddling.

Some states, like Missouri, have specifically excluded spanking from the definition of abuse. This leaves parents who practice other forms of disciplinary beatings in a slightly more precarious legal situation. For example, a mother who beat her son with a computer cable was arrested on aggravated child abuse charges, despite the form of discipline seeming "common" to her.

Reporting Acts

States have their own acts that mandate certain individuals who work in proximity with children to report known or suspected child abuse or neglect. These include teachers and teachers’ assistants, camp administrators, coaches and assistant coaches, and staff of youth recreational programs. These acts also describe when physical action upon a child constitutes abuse.

For example, in California, the Child Abuse and Neglect Reporting Act (CANRA) provides for parents to assert their parental privilege to impose “reasonable physical discipline.” In order to successfully assert that privilege, the parent must have a reasonable occasion for discipline and a punitive measure that is reasonable in kind and degree. The intent of the parent matters. They must have a genuine disciplinary motive — not just an intent to put the child in harm’s way. In one notable case, a California court found that the use of a wooden spoon to administer a spanking, and the infliction of visible bruises, “did not necessarily exceed the bounds of reasonable parental discipline.”

How High Is the Bar?

Cases of child abuse and neglect usually need to be proved on a “preponderance of the evidence” standard, as opposed to the well-known “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal law. “Preponderance of the evidence” is not nearly as high of a bar as “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The preponderance of the evidence standard is a legal concept used to determine whether a party has met their burden of proof in a civil case. It essentially asks: if the scales of justice were tipped by the evidence presented, which side would they lean towards? The party arguing that there was child abuse must convince the judge or jury that what they claim is more likely than not to be true. This is often described as requiring 51% of the evidence to favor the party's claim. However, it's not a precise mathematical calculation. The focus is on whether the evidence presented leads to a belief that the claim is generally or probably true.


Moms and dads are often given broad deference in how they choose to discipline, but parents should consider the legal consequences before they decide to hit their kids. While severely beating your child is not only immoral but also illegal, the line between illegal child abuse and state-sanctioned spankings can be thin. Even in cases when parents have a different cultural understanding of what is acceptable when it comes to corporal punishment, the law takes a dim view of causing lasting harm to children. Parents who wish to discipline their children through corporal punishment should therefore be careful that any spanking is done with clear disciplinary motives, and not in anger or retribution.

Was this helpful?

You Don’t Have To Solve This on Your Own – Get a Lawyer’s Help

Meeting with a lawyer can help you understand your options and how to best protect your rights. Visit our attorney directory to find a lawyer near you who can help.

Or contact an attorney near you:
Copied to clipboard