Is Spanking Child Abuse?

By Karina C. Hernandez

Updated August 23, 2018

Sad boy sits alone


Attitudes towards spanking vary widely by culture, region and generation. Federal and state law define child abuse and provide a foundation for courts to determine whether cases that involve spanking constitute abuse. Although spanking is not in and of itself a form of child abuse, it can lead to physical abuse, as parents who are prone to spank are more likely to cross the line between discipline and abuse.


Parents are allowed to spank their children in a reasonable manner. Teachers or non-custodial caregivers cannot legally spank children in most states. Serious physical or emotional harm to the child is the threshold for determining whether spanking is abuse.

State Law and Spanking

All states have definitive child abuse statutes and most do not make the act of spanking illegal. A judge or jury applies state law to the facts of an individual case to decide whether an adult has committed child abuse. Federal legislation known as the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, or CAPTA, identifies a minimum set of acts or behaviors that each state must use in its own definition of child abuse. At a minimum, CAPTA defines child abuse or neglect as:

“Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

States That Reference Spanking

States vary widely in their definitions of what constitutes child abuse, especially when it comes to exceptions. At the time of publication, a summary of state definitions of child abuse could be found in the "Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect" brochure published by the Children's Bureau. Most states do not reference spanking specifically, with the exception of four states: California, Mississippi, Missouri and Oklahoma. Laws in these states include exemptions that clarify spanking is not abuse when administered reasonably. The person administering the punishment also has bearing on the legality of spanking. For example, in Oklahoma, a teacher may administer corporal punishment in the form of spanking, but in Mississippi, spanking may only be administered by a parent, guardian or custodian.

Hitting and Slapping Children

CAPTA defines physical abuse of a child as any nonaccidental physical injury, which includes striking a child by kicking, hitting, spanking or slapping. Furthermore, any nonaccidental action that physically impairs a child, regardless of the method used, is physical abuse. In Pennsylvania, it is illegal to forcefully slap or otherwise strike a child younger than the age of one. The act must be administered intentionally, knowingly or recklessly to constitute child abuse.