Massachusetts’ Rules on Spanking: The Parental Privilege Defense

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Massachusetts’ Rules on Spanking: The Parental Privilege Defense
By Amanda Castro, Esq.

A recent Supreme Judicial Court decision allows parents to use reasonable force in disciplining their children without being charged criminally. The Court ruled in Commonwealth v. Dorvil that the physical force used in disciplining a child must be “reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare” of that child.

This decision arose from a case in which a Father was convicted of assault for publicly spanking his toddler. The SJC overturned that conviction and alluded to spanking being “widely regarded as permissible and warranted” in parenting. In one poll where viewers were asked whether spanking their children is a disciplinary method they would use, 76% answered yes compared to 24% who said no.

The Court, however, gave priority to the child’s safety when balancing between parental rights and protecting children against abuse in cases where it is difficult to distinguish between the two. The highest Court in the state found that public spanking where the child was not injured did not toe this line and was clearly not abuse.

Child advocates across the state are expressing concern over this decision, objecting to the idea that spanking can safeguard or promote the welfare of the child. The advocates note that research shows spanking has long-term negative psychological effects on children. School officials and other mandated reporters say when it comes to reporting abuse, they are not in a position to determine a parent’s intent or reasonableness in spanking a child.

The Court came down on the other side, finding that spanking when preventing or punishing misconduct can be reasonably related to promoting that child’s welfare. However, the Court did set some boundaries stating that the force used must not cause or create the risk of causing injury beyond fleeting pain or minor, temporary marks.

Many teachers, social workers, and concerned citizens hope that the Massachusetts State Legislature will draft legislation that clearly outlines what constitutes child abuse and prohibits parents from physically assaulting their children. As of this recent decision, when it comes to parenting, Mothers, Fathers, and guardians are privileged in spanking their children to a “reasonable” degree.

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