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Is it legal to spank your child?

Bearing in mind that this is not a parenting blog and that I am in no way condoning or condemning the practice of spanking or hitting one’s child as a form of punishment, I am addressing the question of whether it is legal for a parent or guardian to spank a child. Like most legal questions, the short answer is “it depends.” The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recently addressed this issue in Commonwealth v. Dorvil and recognized that parents/guardians have a privilege to use “reasonable force” to discipline a child in its care. The Court explained that: (1) the force against the child must be reasonable; (2) the force must be reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor; and (3) the force must neither cause, nor create a substantial risk of causing, physical harm (beyond momentary pain or marks that quickly disappear) or severe mental distress to the child. In the Dorvil case, the court threw out Mr. Dorvil’s conviction which was based on a police officer testifying that he saw him smacking his child on the butt once over her clothes at a local bus stop.

The takeaway message is that there are limits to a parent or guardian’s privilege to use force to discipline one’s child. While cases involving discipline that results in internal bleeding or broken bones can easily be interpreted as criminal, the “reasonable” standard is imprecise and subject to personal interpretation. If you are ever asked to speak to the police or Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) investigators (formerly known as the Department of Social Services or “DSS”) about spanking your child, you should consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney first.