A Utah Supreme Court ruling that spanking a child does not constitute abuse unless there is specific evidence of “harm” falls in line with a series of similar state court rulings across the country that have sought to preserve parental discretion on how to discipline children while not crossing the line into abuse.
We agree with the decision to preserve parental discretion, even as we vehemently condemn corporal punishment. While the rulings uphold the right to spank a child, they should not be construed as offering any kind of endorsement for the practice of corporal punishment.
Numerous studies have documented the negative impact of spanking on a child’s physical and emotional health. Experts have long pointed out that spanking is an ineffective method of discipline, particularly when administered out of anger or frustration. Even so, the courts correctly have been reluctant to intrude into the realm of parental authority when it comes to managing a child’s behavior. The underlying analyses in most cases represent a parsing of the definition of abuse versus harmless use of physical disciplinary measures.
Truly, it is not possible to draw a bright line that separates permissible corporal punishment from abuse that could amount to criminal behavior. As in the Utah case, courts in California, New York and Massachusetts have held that spanking itself does not constitute abuse “per se.” The cases point out the difficulties in determining where the line of abuse is crossed. The rulings have essentially held that each case is different and that abuse laws can be applied only in cases where the evidence indicates actual harm occurred.
In the Utah ruling, justices reversed a Juvenile Court decision in a case in which two parents were accused of spanking their children with a “black belt with rhinestones.” The case did not present evidence of what specific harm the children may have suffered, with the court ruling broadly that while spanking is a practice that might have been condoned in the past, “as a society we have progressed to the point where it’s not acceptable.” The high court found that an insufficient standard by which to gauge whether spanking is harmful in a given case.
Nevertheless, parents who believe corporal punishment is an appropriate tool in child rearing would be well served to review the science. A 2016 analysis of research on spanking found that even a tame form, defined as “an open-handed swat on the child’s behind or extremities,” can have negative impacts that outweigh any benefits in terms of making the child more compliant or well-behaved. The research shows that children who receive such spankings can exhibit increased aggression, anxiety and depression. The study looked at 17 outcomes of spanking and found 13 of them “negative.”
There are laws on the books to protect children from abuse, which includes at the hands of a well-intentioned parent. We would expect that responsible parents recognize there is a fine line between disciplining a child and hurting a child. Instead of weighing how and when spanking might be effective, parents could avoid crossing that line by simply agreeing not to spank a child under any circumstances.