Massachusetts Supreme Court Reaffirms Parents’ Right to Spank

Commonwealth v. Dorvil (2015)

by David S. Marshall

The Massachusetts Supreme Court has formally upheld parents’ right to spank their children. The court unanimously reversed a father’s conviction for battery, recognizing a common law right to spank children as a form of discipline.

Common law is the body of law developed over time through court decisions rather than expressed in statutes enacted by legislative bodies. At common law, the right to spank does not result in criminal responsibility for parents or guardians if: (1) the force used is reasonable; (2) the spanking is reasonably related to promoting the child’s welfare, including punishment; and (3) the spanking does not cause physical harm beyond fleeting pain, humiliation of the child, or severe mental or physical distress.

The father in this case had been convicted at trial of assault and battery of his three-year-old daughter before appealing his case to the high court.

The court wrote that parents also have constitutional rights to discipline their children. The court referred to previous cases recognizing such rights and noted that “[t]he widespread recognition of a parental privilege defense accords with important constitutional values.”

Courts over time have held that the parent-child relationship is safeguarded by the constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that the Fourteenth Amendment protects “the liberty of parents and guardians to direct the upbringing and education of children under their control” (Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 1925). The Supreme Court has also held that “the interest of parents in the care, custody, and control of their children is perhaps the oldest of the fundamental liberty interests recognized” (Troxel v. Granville, 2000).

A trend is emerging among a few states (including Washington) to enact statutes that recognize some form of parental privilege. These laws codify the common law rights of parents to provide parents with greater protection from prosecution arising from their disciplinary choices. Under Washington law, “the physical discipline of a child is not unlawful when it is reasonable and moderate and is inflicted by a parent, teacher, or guardian for purposes of restraining or correcting the child. Any use of force on a child by any other person is unlawful unless it is reasonable and moderate and is authorized in advance by the child’s parent or guardian for purposes of restraining or correcting the child.” RCW 9A.16.100.