Discipline or Misdemeanor?

August 23rd, 2010 by Dionna | 12 Comments
Posted in Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting, Respond with Sensitivity

If you hit your dog, it’s known as a “misdemeanor.”

If you hit your neighbor, it’s known as either a “misdemeanor” or a “felony.”

If you hit your child, it’s known as “discipline.”

One hell of a scared dog!

You can’t hit a dog.

Animal cruelty occurs when one strikes or otherwise physically abuses an animal.1

Possible penalties for a first offense of animal cruelty vary from state to state. Fines can run up to $150,000, and jail sentences can last up to 5 years.2

You can’t hit an adult. In fact, you can’t even act like you’re going to hit an adult.

“Battery is defined as an unlawful touching. The touching need not cause physical injury, thus caressing a stranger’s buttocks is an offensive and unlawful touching. A touching may be of the person’s body or items attached to the body, such as a shoulder bag or necktie. Touching may involve either body-to-body contact or may occur through use of an instrumentality, such as a thrown object or a dog ordered to attack the victim.

Assault is defined as either an attempted battery or placing another in apprehension of an imminent battery.”3 In layman’s terms, that means you can’t even act like you’re going to “unlawfully touch” someone.

Possible penalties for a conviction of assault and battery depend on a number of factors, one of which is whether it is a misdemeanor or felony charge. For example, in Georgia, a person convicted on a misdemeanor charge of simple assault faces up to one year in jail and up to $1000 in fines. If it is classified as a “misdemeanor of high and aggravated nature,” the fines go up to $5,000. A felony aggravated battery conviction in Georgia carries a potential prison sentence of 1-20 years.4

But it’s ok to hit your child.

You can’t hit your dog, and you can’t hit your spouse or a stranger on the street, but – by golly – you sure can hit your kid. Many states have laws spelling out how much physical force you can use to “discipline” your child.5

In Arizona, “A parent or guardian and a teacher or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor or incompetent person may use reasonable and appropriate physical force upon the minor or incompetent person when and to the extent reasonably necessary and appropriate to maintain discipline.”6

In Kentucky, just about anyone can hit your child: “The use of physical force by a defendant upon another person is justifiable when the defendant is a parent, guardian, or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor or an incompetent person or when the defendant is a teacher or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor . . .”7

In New Mexico, it isn’t abuse to hurt a child unless the “person knowingly, intentionally or negligently, and without justifiable cause, . . . permit[s] a child to be . . . cruelly punished.”8

Apparently, cruel punishment does not include a mother who slapped a tired, sobbing, and overwhelmed 13-month-old baby in the face. Perhaps the mother had “justifiable cause” because her 13-month-old baby had the audacity to kick her during a flight.

Wait – a kick from a baby gives one justifiable cause to slap a baby in the face?

If you haven’t heard, a mother who slapped her crying 13-month-old baby in the face was reported to the New Mexico authorities by a flight attendant. The mother was released after questioning.

Those black eyes on the baby? Those weren’t from abuse. They were from a “dog bite” that happened several days before.

And the fact that the father told authorities that he and the mother had argued several times in the past about the mother’s tendency to hit her baby? That didn’t matter either.9

Because it’s still ok for parents to hit their children at the parents’ discretion.

That sounds like cruel punishment to me.

With respect to the airplane incident: Let’s set aside the fact that air travel is stressful for children. Let’s set aside the fact that no toddler can be expected to behave perfectly at all times under the best of circumstances. Let’s set aside the ridiculousness of striking a child as punishment for the child having struck someone else. Let’s look only at the fact that we have:

1) a toddler – practically a baby – who weighs, what? Maybe 22 lbs?10 and

2) a full grown woman. The average weight of an adult woman in the United States is 162.9 lbs.

How much force could we reasonably expect a 22 lb baby to put behind a kick (much less in the confined space of an airplane seat)?

Enough force to justify the 162 lb adult to slap the baby in the face?

How is that fair? How is that legal? Why does our country continue to justify the abuse of our children?

So, to review:

  • I can’t hit my dog when he chews on my favorite pair of shoes – I might go to jail.
  • I can’t approach my neighbor with a raised fist after he yells at my child – I might go to jail.


  • I can hit my 13 month old baby when she “intentionally” kicks me during my in-flight movie.
  • I can hit my toddler for coloring on the living room walls. Never mind that I left the pen within her reach.
  • I can hit my child for interrupting my TV show with a question about homework.
  • Basically, I can hit my child whenever I damn well please.

Why should kids have more rights than dogs, anyway?11

Photo credit: Janick Cox

  1. ASPCA, Reporting Cruelty FAQ
  2. Stray Pet Advocacy, Cruelty Laws
  3. Assault and Battery, citing Wayne R. LaFave, Criminal Law, 3rd ed., 2000.
  4. Georgia Assault & Battery Laws
  5. State by State Spanking Laws. Of course the amorphous ways these laws are written means that their interpretation will vary depending on the judge, the lawyers, and the circumstances of each case. What is “reasonable force”? When is force “justifiable”? No one really knows.
  6. Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 13-403
  7. Ken. Rev. Stat. § 503.110
  8. N.M. Stat. Ann. 30-6-1
  9. Sue Major Holmes, “Mom Says She Slapped Baby Who Kicked Her on Flight
  10. A 13-month-old female who weighs 22 lbs is in the 52nd percentile compared to other babies of the same age/gender.
  11. Lest I have not made myself clear, I do not think that an adult is ever justified in hitting a child. Ever.

12 Responses to:
"Discipline or Misdemeanor?"

  1. kelly @kellynaturally   kellynaturally

    You are absolutely right on target. There is not an acceptable excuse for hitting anyone – child, adult, animal.

    Humans are intelligent, creative, thinking beings, capable of controlling ourselves, and choosing alternative methods of expressing our emotions towards others.

    To hit, instead of using our minds to solve a problem is laziness, a result of being out of control at worst, uncreative at best.

    I understand parents believe that children need disciplined, shepherded, directed, but I don’t believe hitting is ever the way to do this. I wouldn’t discipline my husband with my hand, why would I do so with my child (who is so much smaller and more sucsptible to being injured by my hand)?

    If we feel out of control, or uncreative when it comes to discipline, I always believe it is better to walk away. To say nothing. To calm ourselves down, than it is to take our anger or frustration or irritation out in a physical way on our children.

    There is far less to be gained in that moment of punishment for “misbehavior”, than can be gained in a one-on-one talk later, when both parties are calmed down, and the misbehavior is put into perspective.

    Thank you for this post Dionna.

  2. Sarah

    I am horrified to see things like this. In Canada it is illegal to hit a child under two or over ten. In other countries it is illegal to hit at all. Strangely enough the reason the Canadian Gov won’t make it completely illegal is b/c of how they view laws in the first place. If a parent breaks the law they must be punished. Overseas it is viewed that if a parent breaks the law they need help and support so are not punished but given different resources.

    In the US it is all about who’s rights are more important. Unfortunately children can’t vote so their rights are not as important. As for the dogs having more rights it is shown that a person who hits a dog is more likely to exhibit violent behaviour towards other adults. So it is best to protect the dogs, in order to also protect those with more rights. At least that is how I view the twisted way the world works.

    I know a person who feels it is best to hit a child to teach them (Think the Pearl method) and have heard them hit their child (14 mos) for dropping something, for exploring, for not holding hands while walking…surprisingly this child still appears totally happy. Outwardly there are no signs of anything wrong, and so nothing will be done. I get so angry when I know that a child has to be hurt to the point of hospitalization (usually more than once) before anything is done.

    • Jennifer

      I live in Canada and was a child protection worker until I recently stayed home with my daughter. It is not illegal to hit a child less than 2 or over 10. The law is similar to the states where a parent, guardian, teacher etc, has the right to use reasonable force to discipline a child. What is deemed reasonable is subjective before the law. And trust me, as a child protection worker it can become very subjective before the courts. I have seen child apprehended for having belt loop marks all over their body and the court sent the child home deeming the discipline to be reasonable.

      • Sarah

        S. 43 does allow corporal punishment of minors, however historically children under the age of two, those with mental disabilities, and teenagers have been protected. As of 2004 this still stands, however it has been clarified. Unfortunately the biggest problem is how individuals in a position to protect children view the actions of others. I personally know 2 different social workers who treat their children in a manner that I consider abusive: insulting, belittling their child(ren) in public. Hitting them in public, and telling them they are worthless.

        Those are people determining if what a parent has done to their child is reasonable and corrective. As the excerpt below demonstrates this can cloud the judgment of the adults involved.

        My sisters and I have all had wooden spoons broken over various parts of our bodies. 2 of my 3 sisters believe that it is reasonable for them to discipline their less than 2 yr old children in this manner. I do not and neither does my other sister. As my own family can have drastically different views on discipline it seems reasonable that within child protection services one would see differing views as well.



        (exert from above link) 25 Second, the child must be capable of benefiting from the correction. This requires the capacity to learn and the possibility of successful correction. Force against children under two cannot be corrective, since on the evidence they are incapable of understanding why they are hit (trial decision reflex, (2000), 49 O.R. (3d) 662, at para. 17). A child may also be incapable of learning from the application of force because of disability or some other contextual factor. In these cases, force will not be “corrective” and will not fall within the sphere of immunity provided by s. 43.

        26 The second requirement of s. 43 is that the force be “reasonable under the circumstances”. The Foundation argues that this term fails to sufficiently delineate the area of risk and constitutes an invitation to discretionary ad hoc law enforcement. It argues that police officers, prosecutors and judges too often assess the reasonableness of corrective force by reference to their personal experiences and beliefs, rendering enforcement of s. 43 arbitrary and subjective. In support, it points to the decision of the Manitoba Court of Appeal in R. v. K. (M.) 1992 CanLII 2765 (MB C.A.), (1992), 74 C.C.C. (3d) 108, in which, at p. 109, O’Sullivan J.A. stated that “[t]he discipline administered to the boy in question in these proceedings [a kick to the rear] was mild indeed compared to the discipline I received in my home”.

  3. Fiona

    Yet another reason why the US should sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child (it being the only country in the world other than Somalia to have not signed on). Its opposition to the CRC is that it detracts from “parents’ rights” which presumably includes the right to hit ones child. Something I’ll never understand.

    Sarah, the Canadian law is actually a bit more restrictive than you suggest. You can hit a child between 2-10, but on in some fairly limited circumstances. But it’s still awful. Interestingly, one of the reasons the Supreme Court of Canada gave for it being illegal to hit older children is that it will “create anti-social behaviour”. Why that only happens after a certain age is beyond me.

    Great post!

  4. Rebecca

    To look at this in a less flask half empty manner consider this.

    Original child protection cases were prosecuted under animal protection laws (because animal protection laws existed and no laws existed that protected children). So the first cases prosecuting abusers and removing children from abusive situations were done under child protection laws. It may come to pass that the strengthening of laws protecting animals will strengthen the laws protecting children, in the past this has occurred, therefore, it is not an unreasonable belief that one will lead to the other.

    Additionally, even where there are laws protecting children from abuse, i.e. the crime of abuse of a child in the state of kansas, it is often unprosecuted. Why? Multiple reasons, not the smallest being that a jury will not convict.

    Unfortunately, those entrusted with the responsibility to monitor these situations are decried in situations where they do not act and decried in situations where they do act.

  5. Marcy   mightymarce

    Hi, coming over from twitter. My objection was about saying “your dog has more rights” but then the statement from the ASPCA is extremely general– “striking or otherwise physically abusing” could mean anything ( to me a slap on a dog’s butt could be considered a “strike” and it seems no one really cares much when that happens).

    Reading further to the laws on child abuse, I hadn’t realized some states were so lax. Those stories are horrifying… At the same time I have also heard stories of parents whose children were taken away over something that really was an honest accident. We need to have more consistency in this matter– seems odd to leave it up to states.

    The thing that jumps out most at me here is that ANY form of inappropriate/undesired touching of an able adult is fine, but hitting a young child or an “incompetent person” is ok? That doesn’t seem right at all.

  6. Djrianna

    It has always been appalling toe that parents have the legal “right” to hit their children. Hitting a child is not a means of disciplining a child, rather it is a means for the parent to release anger, feel less embarrassed, and/or exert their authority. There is nothing about hitting a child that teaches them anything other than they are not respected, except maybe to fear their parents. I was hit, excuse me, “disciplined” as a child. I learned to hide what I did, to fear my mother, and I learned I wasn’t respected. I lost all respect for my mother and our relationship went downhill. Now I refuse to leave my son alone with her when he’s older.

  7. Amber   AmberStrocel

    It really is so upsetting that we don’t treat children as people with rights. I understand that young children aren’t able to make sound decisions in terms of voting, driving a car or supervising themselves. Because of that, we need to treat them differently than we treat adults. But there is a big difference between helping someone who can’t care for themselves fully, and being allowed to legally abuse that person in the course of providing that help. It makes me sad. :(

  8. This is so well written and argued. I think its shocking!

  9. MomAgain@40   karentoittoit

    Not right! In South Afric they have changed the laws. We can’t hit our kids!
    But in our Christian society it is still very much alive!
    I DO NOT agree with it!

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