What Is the Difference Between Spanking and Abuse?

April 30th, 2012 by Dionna | 59 Comments
Posted in Carnival and Special Series, Consensual Living, Gentle/Positive Discipline, natural parenting

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This was a tough one to write, and I am hopeful that it will be read in the spirit it was written – not in a space of judgment or criticism, but in the hope that by rethinking long-held beliefs, we can all communicate more peacefully. There is always more room for peace in our world, especially where children are concerned.

Welcome to the Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival

This post was written for inclusion in the Second Annual Spank Out Day Carnival hosted by Zoie at TouchstoneZ. Spank Out Day was created by The Center for Effective Discipline to give attention to the need to end corporal punishment of children and to promote non-violent ways of teaching children appropriate behavior. All parents, guardians, and caregivers are encouraged to refrain from hitting children on April 30th each year, and to seek alternative methods of discipline through programs available in community agencies, churches and schools. Please read to the end to find a list of links to the other carnival participants.


You know what is difficult? Trying to explain the difference between spanking and abuse to a child. My child doesn’t really understand where the line is drawn.

I understand his confusion.

The other day Kieran and I went to a donation party for a domestic violence shelter. The shelter asked people to bring new pajamas for kids, many of whom come in at night with nothing.

Before we went, Kieran asked me why we were bringing pajamas, and why the kids stayed at the shelter. I explained to him that the shelter was for mamas and children who were abused. He asked, “what is abused?” I said, “well . . . we have talked about how some parents spank. Abuse is . . . when parents spank very, very hard. They really hurt.”

He said, “doesn’t spanking really hurt?”

I remember when we first talked about spanking — thanks, Little House on the Prairie. When we reached the part where Pa spanks Laura, I read through it without inflection, hoping Kieran wouldn’t ask any questions. But sure enough, as soon as I finished the passage he said, “mama, what does spank mean?”

Drawing from an example that happened just that afternoon I said, “you know how sometimes when you get frustrated, you yell or try to hit one of your friends? And sometimes mama gets frustrated and we might both need to take a break to cool down and then we talk? And you know how some kids take time-outs? Well, some parents think that hitting is a way to teach their kid not to act in a certain way.”

{Looking concerned} “They hit? Why?”

I said, “some people think that hitting will teach or scare kids into acting in an appropriate way.”

He said, “But you say don’t hit.” And I replied, “yes, I do, and I do not believe that any hitting is ok. In our family, we do not hit. We want everyone to feel safe, and hitting does not make me feel safe.

Before we were done, he asked me again, “why do they want to hurt their kids, mama?

So when he asked me, “what is abuse?,” I really struggled. Because we work hard to teach him that hitting is not safe.

I do not want him to hit when he is four years old. I definitely do not want him to hit when he is older – his partner or his children. I do not want him to feel that he is deserving of being hit by others, ever.

Therefore, we teach that no hitting is safe.

What is the difference then between spanking (or swatting, popping, etc.) and abuse? There is a fine legal line.

A commonly adopted definition specifies spanking as hitting a child with an open hand on the buttocks or extremities with the intent to discipline without leaving a bruise or causing physical harm. . . . Physical abuse usually is defined to encompass corporal punishment that is harsh and excessive, involves the use of objects (e.g., belts, paddles), is directed to parts of the body other than the extremities, and causes or has the potential to cause physical harm. Because many parents report using objects during punishment, behaviors that many professionals might consider as clearly abusive are fairly common and included in some definitions of spanking.1

Under many state laws, “[p]hysical abuse is generally defined as ‘any nonaccidental physical injury to the child’ and can include striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child, or any action that results in a physical impairment of the child.”2

Two questions come to my mind when I read that: If a parent is intentionally hitting his/her child and an injury occurs, when would that injury be “nonaccidental”? and What counts as a physical impairment?

The answers will depend on your state’s law, how good your attorney is, and who your judge is.

In Connecticut, you will have to argue what constitutes physical injury, because “[t]he term ‘abused’ means that a child or youth [h]as been inflicted with physical injury or injuries by other than accidental means.”3

In Arkansas they’ve gotten very specific about what crosses the line into abuse. Be sure not to tie “a child to a fixed or heavy object or bind[] or [tie] a child’s limbs together.” You should also stay away from “[g]iving a child or permitting a child to consume or inhale a poisonous or noxious substance . . . .” But just so you know, if you throw, kick, or bite a child and it does not result in physical injury, you should be in the clear.4

Apparently the line between acceptable punishment and abuse is a little more explicit there.

Regardless of our own state law, I think I’ll stick with my four year old on this one.

“Doesn’t spanking really hurt?” Yes, it does. Let’s work together to find a healthier way to work with our children.


I know that many of my readers have spanked – once, a few times, or regularly. I fretted when deciding whether or not to publish this post, because I know how critical it might sound to a parent who employs corporal punishment. Heck, I know how it feels to want to spank. I’ve been that mad – I’ve teetered on the edge of such hot frustration and/or fear that I felt like striking my own child. But I have found the self-control to breathe, to regroup, to find a way to communicate that feels better to me and my child. And I’m thankful, because peaceful communication is something I value.

Please do not read this as something I have written sitting in judgment. I simply wanted to share another perspective – that of a child who cannot possibly grasp the fine distinction between a parent who is trying to teach their child a lesson through physical discipline, and one who is lashing out at a child in a rage.

To a child, there may not be much of a difference.


Spank Out Day 2012 Carnival hosted by TouchstoneZ

On Carnival day, please follow along on Twitter using the handy #SpankOutCar hashtag. You can also subscribe to the Spank Out Day Carnival Twitter List and Spank Out Day Carnival Participant Feed.
Please take time to read the submissions by the other carnival participants:

  1. Spanking Children: Evidence and Issues (citations omitted)
  2. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect at 2.
  3. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect at 13 (Citing Conn. Gen. Stat. § 46b-120).
  4. Definitions of Child Abuse and Neglect at 13 (Citing Ark. Ann. Code § 12-18-103).

59 Responses to:
"What Is the Difference Between Spanking and Abuse?"

  1. Leslie   RealChildDev

    I love hearing the conversation from a child’s perspective who has never been spanked. Such wisdom from such a little one. I unfortunately did spank my two oldest when they were younger. Since we have been “spank-free” we have had some amazing conversations, too. I would like to video record some of their thoughts because it has such a profound impact coming from the mouth of a child.

  2. Selmada

    I was spanked as a child, not excessively and I don’t really remember it in anger. I do know that for my brother or I it did not work. It taught us not to get caught. We were not taught the why what we had done was wrong, just that we were not to do it again (my brother used to actually laugh about it).
    I did turn out a normal productive member of society. I have a great job, a university education and two wonderful kids who will never be spanked. I have never gotten over begin hit.
    I can admit to times when I’ve been tempted, when my buttons have been pushed but then I remember that I’m not my mother. I still yell more than I like, and I’m really working hard on that too.
    If hitting makes someone obey then they would allow it in schools. They would allow it in the work place. They would allow it when someone offends you on the street. They would allow a bigger spouse (usually the husband) to physically punish the smaller spouse (usually the wife). All of these are considered assault, for any reason. Whey would striking a child be any different.

    • Holly N.

      I totally agree. That is the simplest logic of why is it ok to hit a child but not an adult.

  3. teresa   momgrooves

    I love that you shared your conversation with Kieran. He is already so wise and his questions sort of say it all to me.
    I don’t want to make anyone feel judged either. I hope any of your readers who do spank could feel your intention here.

  4. It’s always been very simple to me. I do not want my child to ever use hitting as a way to solve a problem, so I do not ever model that behavior.

    Parents who choose to hit their children believe otherwise: they have a belief that hitting is indeed a viable choice for problem solving, and their behavior teaches that belief to their children far more effectively than any words they may speak.

    As for judgment: yes, I judge other parents when I see them hit a child. I judge them as the kind of person who would hit a child, nothing more and nothing less. They do not share my set of beliefs and values, and I do not seek friendship or community with them. If they seek it with me, then I am clear about my expectations (ie, you cannot hit my kid, nor hit your kid around my kid), and if that strikes them as unrealistic, we go no further.

    Notice I do not ever say that I think hitting a child is bad or wrong or evil. It is just not behavior I want to be around or to subject my kid to.

    Thank you for writing this. You did a good job.

  5. Holly N.

    Thank you soooo much for sharing this. Because of many things I have read (including your stuff Dionna) we have decided not to spank our child even though we were as children. Some days it is hard but in the moment I realize that when I get upset that my daughter isn’t doing or saying what should be said or done that touching her in anger is not the answer. I still think I could do better with mommy time outs but I know I am a work in progress and am striving to be the best I can be for her. I plan on sharing this with my husband and keeping it close by so when others ask why I don’t spank then I can share what you said way better than I could ever explain it myself. Thanks again!

  6. Megan@TheBehavioralChild   BehavioralChild

    I would very much like to see parents concentrate on the good news that there are alternatives to spanking, instead of knit-picking over the vocabulary of corporal punishment. And to just move forward from here — instead of feeling defensive, or feeling judged, or feeling like they have to justify their actions — towards a better future for our children. We can all agree that we want that for our children, can’t we?

  7. Thanks for this, Dionna, it reminded me of how I viewed spanking as a child. My parents didn’t hit us often, but if they did I refused to cry, refused to give them the reactions they longed for. I remember losing respect for them in that moment, as they had lost control. I also remember feeling that they had shamed me by pulling their position as a parent and using their size and strength over me. Hitting a child is losing control in my opinion, and I hope I manage to control my temper and frustrations enough never to resort to physical punishment. I totally agree that there are other methods of teaching a child the difference between right and wrong.

  8. Steve

    I agree with this and I don’t think it was judgemental in the slightest.

    I cannot tell my child “no hitting” and then hit them, it’s simply hypocritical.

    I had given my child a tiny little slap a couple times on the hand but the more I’ve researched it the more we have arrived at the decision that spanking has no place in our home.

  9. Great post–thanks! As a father of four–I can tell you that there is a world of difference between how a parent and a child experience the same “spanking incident”. As I mellowed out and improved over the years–I found that my younger kids got spanked less than the older ones. Not that the older ones got spanked much–but it’s all relative. I think my youngest (he’s 15 now) may have gotten spanked twice in his lifetime–but if you ask him–he makes it sound like he was spanked on a daily basis. In retrospect–I can clearly remember many of the times that I was spanked as a kid–more so than other childhood memories. I guess the lasting and overshadowing impact of spanking is another thing that parents should try to consider.

  10. john johnson

    If I ever had a kid i would definitely not spank him/her. When growing up my dad spanked me as hard as he could whenever I cried and then I was just a newborn and he kept hitting me up until 14 years old.

  11. I totally agree with you! Here’s a post a wrote a while back: “Why I don’t Spank My Toddler”


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