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Is Spanking Child Abuse?

Published: May 14, 2012
Dear TeenHealthFX,
If a parent spanks his/her child, is that technically considered child abuse? I've heard perspectives from both sides. Some people say it is a parent's right to use spanking as punishment, and others say it is barbaric and traumatizing. What is the legal perspective?
Signed: Is Spanking Child Abuse?

Dear Is Spanking Child Abuse?,


The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services What Is Child Abuse and Neglect? webpage lists the major types of child abuse and neglect as:

1.      Physical abuse

2.      Neglect

3.      Sexual abuse

4.      Emotional abuse

5.      Abandonment

6.      Substance abuse

Their definition of physical abuse was stated as the following:

Physical abuse is nonaccidental physical injury (ranging from minor bruises to severe fractures or death) as a result of punching, beating, kicking, biting, shaking, throwing, stabbing, choking, hitting (with a hand, stick, strap, or other object), burning, or otherwise harming a child, that is inflicted by a parent, caregiver, or other person who has responsibility for the child.2 Such injury is considered abuse regardless of whether the caregiver intended to hurt the child. Physical discipline, such as spanking or paddling, is not considered abuse as long as it is reasonable and causes no bodily injury to the child.

To answer your question about the legalities of spanking, the United States (unlike some other countries in the world) has not outlawed all forms of hitting children. Spanking is technically considered legal as long as there is no bodily or emotional harm to the child. If bruises, fractures or any other kind of physical harm results form a parent hitting a child, child protective services can become involved. It could also be the case that if a child was being spanked very frequently and it was causing emotional harm to that child a case could be made for emotional abuse and child protective services could become involved as well. 


That’s the legal side of things. The perspectives you hear about spanking from different people are attributed to people’s beliefs based on religious beliefs, cultural beliefs, values that were imparted based on how they were raised by their parents, education from child development specialists about spanking and the results of this kind of punishment, and more. There are certainly many different opinions out there and there have been cases which have gone to court to determine whether certain acts of hitting were abusive or not.

Keep in mind that just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean it is the right or helpful thing to do. This is certainly the case with spanking. Many child development experts and medical professionals are strongly against the use of spanking. And FX strongly cautions parents not to use spanking as method of punishment for the following reasons:

·         Research has clearly demonstrated that other methods of discipline are just as effective, if not more so, as spanking. So why resort to a violent method of punishment when non-violent methods are just as (if not more than) effective?

·         Spanking usually results because a parent is feeling angry about a situation and the spanking becomes a discharge for that parent. It is more of an outlet for the parent than a learning tool for a child.

·         A parent who hits their child can certainly be seen as hypocritical and definitely gives a mixed message to the child. Most parents teach their children not to hit or to use physical violence as a way to resolve problems. It’s a contradictory message to tell a child hitting is not okay and then to use spanking as a method of punishment.  Spanking teaches kids that it’s acceptable to vent your anger or right a wrong by hitting other people – not a very good message to convey.

·         When parents spank they are often feeling angry and out of control – even if bodily harm is not done to the child in terms of bruising or fractures. Parents in this angry state can be very frightening to children and there have been children who have been traumatized by spankings. Not because they were severely physically harmed, but because of seeing their parents as so angry and out of control and not feeling the safety and security at their parents’ hands.

·         What are you teaching your child by spanking? Research has shown that natural consequences work best at teaching a child a lesson. If your child draws all over his desk at school, what gives a better message to that child – spanking him or having him clean off all the desks in his classroom? What lesson needs to be learned and what value needs to be imparted?

·         Spankings can lead to problems in the parent-child relationship. Children who obey their parents because they fear them do not have as strong relationships with their parents as children who admire, respect, and look up to their parents. (And don’t fool yourselves, parents – while kids may respect certain parts of you, deep down they do not respect the part of you that hits – especially when they are teens). And strong, healthy relationships with caregivers are important foundations for kids who generally behave in an acceptable way.

·         Why are you hitting? Nobody is perfect and your child will make mistakes. What message are you giving to your child is he/she is generally well-behaved, makes one mistake and is physically punished for it? And if your child has a chronic behavioral problem, hitting is certainly not the answer and will not help at all – understanding and addressing the underlying problem is what will help in the long-run.  

Consider the additional points made by Discipline & Behavior:

·         Hitting devalues a child, teaching them they are weak, defenseless, and are not deserving of any respect. (Remember that appropriate consequences for bad behavior can be given in a respectful way). It also can convey the idea “I am bad” to a child and negatively affect self-esteem.

·         Hitting devalues the parent. Parents can end up feeling badly about themselves and guilty about what they’ve done – especially when they see that the spanking is not helping matters in the long run.

·         Hitting may lead to abuse as these kinds of physical punishments can often escalate.

·         Hitting generally does not improve things and often makes things worse.  

·         Hitting promotes anger in children and parents.

Signed: TeenHealthFX