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Hitting your children is a sensitive moral topic for many parents, but it is worth discussing whether it is even legal.
There is no federal law generally governing how parents must conduct themselves with regard to their children, which leaves most of the legal guidance on striking your kids with the states.
So is it legal to hit your kids?
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.
Many states have broad exceptions to child abuse laws for "reasonable discipline" when meted out by parents or caretakers. This "parental privilege" to strike a child is not absolute; a spanking which is "too hard" can end with a parent facing criminal charges.
So just how hard is too hard? There isn't a good general answer, although 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.
This is where many parents come apart on the issue of discipline. Many parents would agree that severely beating your child is not only immoral but also illegal, but it can be difficult to separate illegal beatings from state-sanctioned spankings.
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.
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.
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.
Moms and dads are often given broad deference in how they choose to discipline, but parents consider the legal consequences before they decide to hit their kids.
Editor's Note, June 7, 2016: This post was first published in June 2014. It has since been updated.
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.