Corporal Punishment—Still Legal for Discipline?

Public debate over discipline of children and the use of corporal punishment erupted recently after newspapers were filled with stories covering allegations that a professional football star had abused his four-year-old-son. Adrian Peterson, a running back for the Minnesota Vikings, has stated he was disciplining the boy, and admittedly used a “switch” or small branch from a tree to spank his son. The state has charged Peterson with child abuse as a result of the incident. Some news reports have indicated that the boy was examined by a doctor after the incident and had multiple bruises and bleeding cuts, which led to a public outcry demanding Peterson’s suspension from play.

Regardless of the actual facts and circumstances of the Peterson case, the incident has brought renewed attention to the issue of corporal punishment of children. Corporal punishment is the legal term used for physical punishment, such as spanking. Many people are unsure of the status of the law and what forms of discipline are acceptable. Media attention to the Peterson case has led to renewed calls to ban corporal punishment.

Over the past 60 years or so, attitudes regarding corporal punishment of children have changed greatly. More and more society embraces the notion that children should never be physically punished for wrongdoing. This notion conflicts with the biblical principal expressed in passages such as Proverbs 13:24, which states: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” Or Proverbs 23:13-14, which state: “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell.”

Most people have heard of some case in which parents became entangled in the juvenile court system for spanking their children in what was deemed an abusive manner. Many parents are hesitant to spank children in public for fear that someone will report them to the department of social services. In this article we will examine the issue of corporal punishment and the guidelines the courts have drawn for permissible punishment of children. Lord willing, in a future article we will look at the juvenile court system and the aspects of that court system that are a cause for concern on the part of parents administering discipline now, and even more so in the future.

In discussing the status of the law in this area, it is important to note that many states have different rules and varying case-law-interpreting statutes, making it difficult to address all the specific rules in this short space. For purposes of discussion, we will look at the laws of the state of Iowa, where this author primarily practices. For specific information, the reader is encouraged to consult with an attorney licensed in his own state.

The general rule is that parents are allowed to use corporal punishment in disciplining children. The Iowa Supreme Court has described a parent’s ability to use physical punishment as follows:

[P]arents have a right to inflict corporal punishment on their child, but that right is restricted by moderation and reasonableness. When the parent goes beyond the line of reasonable correction, his or her conduct becomes criminal. “Corrective” means it must be for the purpose of behavior modification rather than to satisfy the passions of the enraged parent. The proper test is whether, under the particular circumstances, the amount of force used or the means employed by the parent rendered such punishment abusive rather than corrective in character. No precise rule defining what is permissible can be laid down, because the amount of force which would be reasonable or excessive necessarily varies with the age, physical condition, and other characteristics of a child as well as with the gravity of the child’s misconduct.1 This language is typical of the way many courts define proper corporal punishment. The problem for parents, when cases are determined on a case-by-case basis, is that the court will decide after the fact whether the punishment used in a particular situation was appropriate. The number of variables that may weigh in on a court’s decision, and the weight given to those variables, can change the outcome of such a case dramatically. As the Iowa court stated in the language quoted above, “No precise rule defining what is permissible can be laid down.” When a court uses a standard of “reasonableness,” that is legally defined as being what an ordinary person would consider reasonable under the circumstances. With changing attitudes concerning discipline of children, an “ordinary” person may not consider any amount of physical punishment to be appropriate. Therefore, although the law assures parents of the right to use corporal punishment, it is difficult to define precisely what type or level of corporal punishment may be deemed acceptable.

Some guidance as to what is not acceptable can be found in the statutory law regarding child abuse. Child abuse may be defined as a nonaccidental physical injury suffered by a child as a result of the acts of a person responsible for the care of the child.2 Physical injury may be defined as damage to any bodily tissue to the extent that the tissue must undergo a healing process in order to be restored to a sound and healthy condition or damage to any bodily tissue which results in the death of the person who has sustained the damage.3 Examples of such injuries are as follows:

(i)            Abrasions [scrape, rubbing off of the skin];

(ii)          Lacerations [cut or tear in the flesh, jagged wound];

(iii)         Bruises [discoloration of the skin caused by a blow without a surface break];

(iv)         Hyperemia [reddening of surface tissue] lasting 24 hours or more*;

(v)          Burns [injury to skin caused by fire or chemical];

(vi)         Scalds [burn or injury with hot liquid or steam];

(vii)        Sprains [wrench or twist a ligament or muscle without dislocating the bone];

(viii)      Dislocations [put a bone out of joint];

(ix)         Fractures [break in a bone, tear in cartilage];

(x)          Eye injuries [including detached retina];

(xi)         Welts [raised area on surface tissue, caused by a blow]; and

(xii)        Internal injuries, including abdominal or chest; brain; central nervous system or subdural hemorrhage or hematoma.

* Note that hyperemia [reddening of the skin] is the only type of injury in which the 24 hour rule applies.4

Of this list, abrasions, lacerations, bruises, hyperemia (red marks), and welts are the type that could possibly be caused by traditional corporal punishment or spanking. Any parent who punishes a child in a manner that causes such injury could be found to have abused the child.

If a parent is accused of child abuse, there are two ways in which the parent can become involved in the court system. The first is through criminal charges. In this case the parent is basically charged with assaulting the child, just as if the parent were intentionally to injure some other person. In many states, an assault on a child or other family member constitutes domestic abuse, which often carries enhanced penalties such as mandatory jail time and loss of right to bear firearms. However, the criminal justice system also carries certain safeguards for the parent accused of abuse. The state must prove abuse beyond the shadow of a doubt. The accused parent has the right to confront and cross-examine witnesses against him. The rules of evidence apply, including the exclusion of hearsay evidence. Hearsay is an out-of-court statement offered for its truth, such as testimony from a witness who says another party told them they saw the parent abusing the child. Unless the eyewitness is present so that the parent can question whether they really saw what they claim, the evidence would be excluded.

Because of the more stringent rules applicable to criminal cases, many allegations of child abuse are instead referred to juvenile court, with no criminal charges being filed. While the juvenile court cannot levy criminal sanctions against a parent, the court can limit the actions of the parents and can even order the removal of the child from its parents’ home. Often social workers from the Department of Social Services will become involved in the home and will be given authority from the court to oversee discipline and other parental functions in the home. The functioning of the juvenile court bears closer examination, because of the unique rules that apply to that system and their implication for parents who become involved in juvenile court. We hope to study the processes of the juvenile court more closely in our next installment in this series.

When considering how Christian parents should discipline their children in this context, we do well to review several excerpts from a sermon entitled “The Rod and Reproof: The Loving Discipline of Covenant Children” by Rev. S. Key, which has been reprinted as a pamphlet by the same name (cf.

We must also note in this connection, that rightly to use the rod on our children requires love. All too often, where physical discipline is exercised, it is not done out of love either for God or the child. We who must administer such discipline to our covenant children, must do so under God’s authority and with His manner and attitude.

It takes just a little time and effort to get the stick out. And for us to reflect God’s attitude of love through our reactionary, impatient, sinful flesh, it is necessary that we slow down and think about what we are doing. Slapping your children around the head and beating on them with your fists, whipping them or beating them with any object close at hand, or anything of the like, is nothing more than abuse of the children whom God has entrusted to your care. And if that has been your ungodly method of punishing your covenant children, you must repent before God and before your children this day!

When we parents administer the discipline of the rod in love, then we do not do so to injure.5

Applying these principles to the standards expressed by the Iowa Supreme Court in the Arnold case, we note that the court stated that the punishment “must be for the purpose of behavior modification rather than to satisfy the passions of the enraged parent.”6 The loving correction described above would certainly meet that portion of the test. The Court also stated that “[t]he proper test is whether, under the particular circumstances, the amount of force used or the means employed by the parent rendered such punishment abusive rather than corrective in character.”7 Again, the loving discipline described in the excerpts above would be within the bounds of the law. Any discipline resulting in red marks that last for a period of time, lacerations, bruises, or welts could certainly put the parent on the defensive with the state, but such discipline would probably be outside the loving discipline described. The discipline administered by Adrian Petersen, which allegedly resulted in bleeding cuts to the child’s legs, would also be outside the scope of the loving discipline described above.

Sadly, the world around us more and more encourages everyone to do what is right in his own eyes, and this attitude carries over to a lack of discipline of children. In this climate, any physical punishment is frowned upon by the world; even the most loving punishment could still subject a parent to allegations of child abuse. In the next article, Lord willing, we will look at the difficulties presented by the juvenile justice system in such a changing world. As we seek to raise our children in the fear of His name, we must remember that we ought to obey God rather than man. We can be comforted in knowing that He will avert all evil or turn it to our profit.

1 State v. Arnold, 543 N.W.2d 600, 603 (Iowa 1996).

2 Iowa Code, Section 232.68(2)(a)(1) (2014).

3 441 Iowa Administrative Code, 175.1 and 175.21.

4 Child Protective Services Investigation Handbook [Feb. 1995], 7.

5 The Rod and Reproof: The Loving Discipline of Covenant Children, Rev. S. Key (1990).

6 State v. Arnold, 543 N.W.2d 600, 603 (Iowa 1996).

7 Ibid.