A Parent’s Right to Discipline: Child Spanking Laws in California

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Written By Blue & Gold NLR Team





Spanking, a method of discipline utilized by many parents to correct their children’s behavior, remains a subject of controversy. While some view it as a legitimate form of correction, others consider it a potential manifestation of child abuse, particularly when it is excessive, unreasonable, or leads to injury.

In California, although the law does not explicitly forbid spanking, it imposes certain constraints on the use of physical force for disciplining children. This article aims to elucidate the legal parameters surrounding child abuse, parental rights in disciplining children, and the potential repercussions of excessive spanking in California.

Definition of Child Abuse

As outlined in California Penal Code 273d PC, child abuse occurs when an individual intentionally inflicts cruel or inhuman corporal punishment or causes an injury resulting in a traumatic condition to a child under the age of 18. Corporal punishment, in this context, refers to physical harm excluding mental or psychological harm. A traumatic condition encompasses wounds or bodily injuries caused by direct application of physical force.

The pivotal aspect of child abuse lies in the willful nature of the act, indicating that the person acted purposefully. It is not a prerequisite for the individual to have intended to violate the law or harm the child. For instance, if a parent unintentionally causes bruises while spanking a child with a belt, they may still face child abuse charges.

Parental Authority in Disciplining a Child

However, not all forms of spanking are automatically considered child abuse in California. Parents, guardians, or individuals authorized to discipline a child are not deemed guilty of child abuse if they employ justifiable physical force or other reasonable methods for discipline. “Justifiable” implies that a reasonable person would find the punishment necessary under the given circumstances, and the method of spanking remains reasonable.

For instance, spanking a child with an open hand for lying might not be deemed child abuse if it is not excessive or cruel. Conversely, using a wooden spoon for a minor offense, like spilling milk, may be considered child abuse if the spanking is disproportionate or results in injury.

Penalties for Child Abuse

Child abuse charges in California can be classified as either misdemeanors or felonies based on case specifics and the defendant’s criminal history. Misdemeanor charges can result in up to one year in county jail and a $6,000 fine, while felony charges may lead to two, four, or six years in jail and the same fine. Additionally, a prior felony child abuse conviction within the past decade adds four years to the sentence.

Child abuse charges may also trigger other consequences, such as the initiation of a juvenile dependency case, child removal from the home, loss of parental rights, mandatory attendance in parenting classes, issuance of restraining orders, and the enhancement of other charges.

Legal Defenses

Various legal defenses can be employed when facing child abuse accusations in California:

  • False Allegations: Demonstrating that the accusations are false, possibly arising from lies, spite, jealousy, or revenge. Supporting evidence may include witness testimony, alibi, or motive.
  • Non-Abuse-Related Injuries: Establishing that the child’s injuries stem from causes other than abuse, such as accidents, sports, or medical conditions. Supporting evidence may include medical records, photographs, or expert testimony.
  • Legal Right to Discipline: Asserting that the defendant was within their legal right to discipline the child, emphasizing justifiability and reasonableness. Supporting evidence may include the child’s behavior, the defendant’s intent, or the method of spanking.
  • Accidental Injury: Contending that the injury resulted from an accident rather than willful action. Supporting evidence may encompass the defendant’s reaction, the child’s response, or the circumstances of the incident.


The issue of spanking involves a delicate balance between a parent’s right to discipline and a child’s right to be protected from abuse. While California law does not outright ban spanking, it unequivocally prohibits child abuse. Parents opting for spanking should be cognizant of the legal limitations and associated risks. In the event of child abuse accusations, seeking counsel from an experienced criminal defense attorney becomes crucial to navigate the charges and safeguard parental rights.

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