Can You Go To Jail for Hitting Your Child?

Updated December 14, 2023
13 min read
Can You Go to Jail for Hitting Your Child?

Introduction

Following years of advancement in child psychology, a significant majority of the American public no longer supports spanking as a method of punishment for children. Still, public opinion on child spanking remains divided, with many households retaining it as a form of punishment.

The law’s position on hitting children is somewhat fuzzy, which means the judges and juries play an important role in applying the law based on the given situation. If you find yourself facing a child abuse charge because you hit your child, you should consult a criminal law practitioner near you to find the best ways to resolve the situation.

But first, let’s consider the obvious question here — the question that someone would ask a child after a parent administers a slight (or grievous) dose of bodily harm to the child — “If your dad hits you, can he go to jail?” 

Well, if you’re a child and you’re reading this, the general answer is yes, your dad can go to jail if he hits you. This answer, however, depends on a number of factors, such as the severity of the hit, the injuries sustained, and the laws of the state in which the incident occurred.

Can a Parent Be Arrested for Hitting or Disciplining a Child?

American laws do not expressly outlaw child spanking. As a matter of fact, there are U.S. Supreme Court precedents that allow parents and educators significant latitude in disciplining children. In Ingraham v. Wright, 430 U.S. 651 (1977), the Supreme Court ruled that it is not unconstitutional to administer corporal punishment to children. 

Under certain circumstances, parents can be arrested for hitting their children. The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA), which is the federal legislative act concerning these issues, sets only minimum standards, allowing states to determine what actions can be considered child abuse.

These state laws range in severity from lax to highly restrictive. In states where the standard is highly restrictive, parents can be arrested if law enforcement determines that the parents harmed their children in any way.

Is It Illegal If You Leave Marks or Bruises on a Child After Discipline?

Although state laws vary, the one thing they pretty much agree on is that it’s illegal to discipline children in any way that leaves them with bruises. 

However, even this is still open to interpretation by law enforcement and the courts. While minor marks might not be considered illegal, legal liability increases with the severity of the injuries. The criminal charges range from minor misdemeanors to Class A felonies. 

In Wisconsin, for instance, “intentionally causing serious harm to a child” is a Class C felony that can result in a jail term of up to 40 years, even if the incident involved one’s own child.

Is Slapping a Child Considered Abuse?

Is it illegal to hit your child in the face? Can you go to jail for slapping your child? The answer to this question again varies, depending on state law. In states where child abuse laws are more relaxed, it’s not likely that slapping a child alone will be considered criminal abuse. 

So, whether you can go to jail for slapping your child depends on where you live. In states where the laws are pretty strict, the risk of a slap becoming a legal issue is higher, especially if the slap leaves any marks on the child.

What Is Corporal Punishment?

Corporal punishment is the forceful physical infliction of pain or discomfort as a penalty for undesirable behaviors. It can take several forms, most often spanking or forcing the child to assume an uncomfortable posture for a prolonged period.

Is corporal punishment legal?

In about 25 states, corporal punishment has been criminalized. In the other states where it hasn’t been outlawed, some states allow physical punishment only for parents, while other states allow both parents and educators to administer corporal punishment.

Is It Parental Discipline or Child Abuse?

While corporal punishment is increasingly unpopular, there are still segments of the population who strongly believe that this method is the best way to fix bad behavior. The law doesn’t totally outlaw it yet — but hopefully, it will in the future.

That said, many states have child abuse statutes that dictate whether an action counts as lawful parental discipline or child abuse. The scope of these laws varies greatly. But in all states, leaving bruises on your child, hitting them with objects, or depriving them of important necessary amenities is more likely to be considered an unjustified use of physical force and may open you up to criminal charges.

Additionally, law enforcement is more likely to charge you with child abuse if they find your child displaying any of these symptoms or a combination of them:

  1. Bruises, burns, or broken bones;

  2. Antipathy towards the parent;

  3. Unexplained school absences;

  4. Malnutrition;

  5. Medical neglect;

  6. Sudden posture problems; and

  7. Suicide attempts. 

These symptoms will be difficult to explain not only to law enforcement but also to a jury. More importantly, your child may suffer lasting physical, psychological, and/or emotional damage. If you believe you have no choice but to administer corporal punishment to your child, it’s highly advisable to stick to mild and reasonable actions.

Conclusion

It’s a personal decision whether you, as a parent, wish to use corporal punishment on your children to correct their behavioral issues. However, as discussed above, law enforcement and the courts reserve the right to determine what actions cross the line from child discipline to child abuse. 

So, what should you do if you’re faced with a child abuse claim? Consult a criminal defense attorney who is experienced in helping clients absolve themselves of criminal liability arising from their actions towards their children. 

Article by
Yevheniia Savchenko
Lawrina

Yevheniia Savchenko is a Product Content Manager at Lawrina. Yevheniia creates user interface copies for Lawrina products, writes release notes, and helps customers get the best user experience from all Lawrina products. Also, Yevheniia is in charge of creating helpful content on legal template pages (Lawrina Templates) and up-to-date information on US law (Lawrina Guides). In her spare time, Yevheniia takes up swimming, travels, and goes for a walk in her home city.

If you have any questions or suggestions regarding the product or UX content for Lawrina, feel free to contact Yevheniia directly at y.savchenko@lawrina.org or connect with her on LinkedIn.

Frequently Asked Questions

At what age is it safe to administer corporal punishment?

The law is silent on when it’s safe for parents to begin administering corporal punishment to their children. However, it stands to reason that the younger the child, the more likely it is for law enforcement and the courts to consider corporal punishment as child abuse.

What effects can corporal punishment have on children?

The first and foremost effect that corporal punishment can have on children is prolonged pain, either physical or emotional. Hitting your child might leave him or her with lasting pain, even with no physical bruises. 

It could further dampen the child’s self-esteem, leading to anxiety issues and depression. Corporal punishment could also increase the likelihood that the child will become abusive and violent. When a child grows up receiving various forms of corporal punishment as consequences for his or her behavior, the child may become accustomed to viewing violence as the standard way to settle differences.

Does hitting my child guarantee that he or she will behave better?

Well, this depends on what your definition of “better” is. However, according to available data from multiple studies, states in which corporal punishment is discouraged in schools experience much fewer crimes, lower incarceration rates, and higher educational achievement rates when compared to the states where corporal punishment is actively practiced.
 

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