When Does a Spanking Become a Crime?

September 1, 2009

The Bible tells us that "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him."(Proverbs 13:24). But in California, adhering to this Scripture can land a parent in jail.

Stated in Penal Code 273d, California child abuse law makes it a crime to "inflict on a child any cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or injury resulting in a traumatic condition." The law defines a "traumatic condition" simply as any visible injury, whether serious or slight.

Unfortunately, Penal Code 273d doesn't give parents a great deal of guidance as to when a justifiable "spanking" or "belting" crosses the line into criminal child abuse. Whipping an 8-year-old for misbehavior may seem proper parenting to one person, but cruel and abusive to another.

This quandary is made all the more difficult by our society's vast differences in cultures, religious beliefs and traditions...all of which influence peoples' views on this topic. Some groups within our society embrace corporal punishment as appropriate and even a moral duty...while others feel that an adult should never be allowed legally to beat a child.

Because California's child abuse laws are so vague, a great deal of discretion is left to police and prosecutors. They must evaluate individual cases of suspected physical abuse to determine whether they warrant arrest and prosecution. If charges do get filed, then a judge or jury becomes the ultimate arbiter of whether a crime was committed.

In the end, however, Penal Code 273d fails to do what any criminal law is supposed to do: guide people before the fact as to what constitutes illegal behavior. In large part, that's because our society has not yet decided where exactly to draw the line between a parent's authority to discipline a child as s/he sees fit...and the child's right to be safe and free from abuse.