Spanking has a long history of being used as a form of discipline and while still a prevalent form of punishment in several homes throughout the United States, is mistakenly considered by many to be a form of child abuse.
Spanking is a way in which parents and other authority figures have used to punish children and minors into submission by inflicting physical pain to their body; usually the buttocks. This type of discipline is known as corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was used freely by any adult wishing to discipline a child up until the late 1970’s when spanking by anyone other than parents, such as teachers or school staff, started to receive criticism. 31 states have now banned corporal punishment in schools while the other 19 including Idaho and Arizona are either for it, or not openly against it. Corporal punishment at home is still allowed in all states to some degree.
Although the number of adults who approve of spanking is on a steady decline nationwide, many parents and guardians still respond to their children’s unruly behavior by giving them a swat on the behind. Spanking is often done with an open hand but can also be done using items such as a belt or a switch, which usually inflicts more severe pain than a hand alone. While not all parents agree on spanking, a large number of adults believe spanking with an object is most certainly unlawful.
Belts and switches
The use of belts, switches and the like in carrying out corporal punishment at home may seem harsh, but they aren’t against the law. In B.T. and S.T. v State of Utah (2017), the parents of four children under the age of 18 were said to have been abused after the parents used belts to spank their children. The courts concurred with the abuse charges, stating “the court cannot envision a scenario where striking or hitting a child of any age, would be appropriate or reasonable discipline.” They also acknowledged that the use of spanking was decreasing in popularity stating that “[w]e’ve evolved beyond it being appropriate to strike a child with an object” and “[t]he simple striking of the child with a belt caused pain and is abuse.”
Justification as defense
Contrary to the court’s original ruling, spanking children with or without a belt is not illegal under Utah law. In fact, Utah Code 76-2-401 states: “Conduct which is justified is a defense to prosecution for any offense based on the conduct. The defense of justification may be claimed: ( . . . ) when the actor’s conduct is reasonable discipline of minors by parents, guardians, teachers, or other persons in loco parentis [unless] the offense charged involved causing serious bodily injury.” The parents the above mentioned case admitted to using a belt to discipline their children, however there were no physical signs of abuse visible from their discipline. The court later reviewed their ruling in which they claimed that hitting a child with an object is abuse and deemed it too vague, giving the examples of how a pillow fight or playing with Nerf swords would fall into the same definition. Utah Code 76-5-109 reiterates that child abuse means “those offenses that cause physical injury to the child” and not for conduct that includes “the use of reasonable and necessary physical restraint or force on a child.”
While spanking may be legal, pediatricians and researchers continue to discourage parents from using it as a form of punishment. Spanking is often done to stop unwanted behavior, such as disobedience and aggression, however current research has shown it to be ineffective, with unwanted behavior escalating instead of diminishing. The American Academy of Pediatrics has also done studies regarding the connection between children who are punished physically and future mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. For those parents who have failed to learn and put into practice a more effective way of disciplining their children, they should ensure that any corporal punishment used in the home does not escalate to the point of child abuse and to consult with an attorney should any charges arise.