As a parent, you expect decisions about your own child’s well-being to be up to you. Can the law interfere with your ability to discipline your child? Can the law forbid you from spanking your child?
In Washington, parents are entitled to raise and reasonably discipline their children, so long as that discipline does not interfere with the children’s health, welfare, or safety. Parents may reasonably use corporal punishment (like spanking) to discipline.
But what does the law in Washington really mean by “reasonably discipline”? Under Washington law, the physical discipline of a child is not against the law when it is “reasonable and moderate.” But what does “reasonable and moderate” mean? Couldn’t those broad guidelines mean different things to different people?
To provide further guidance, Washington law elaborates that physical discipline is reasonable and moderate when it is “inflicted by a parent, teacher, or guardian for purposes of restraining or correcting the child.” Physical punishment should be in direct response to a child’s disobedience or acting-out, rather than a blanket response to general bad behavior. Any person besides a parent, teacher, or guardian must be authorized in advance by the child’s parent or guardian to use reasonable, moderate force to correct or restrain the child when it is appropriate.
Washington’s law also provides a list of actions that are presumed to be unreasonable methods of disciplining a child, including:
- throwing, kicking, burning, or cutting
- striking a child with a closed fist
- shaking a child under age three
- choking or otherwise interfering with a child’s breathing
- threatening a child with a deadly weapon
- any other act that is likely to cause bodily harm greater than transient pain or minor temporary marks
What’s the difference between lawful corporal punishment and child abuse?
So if we know what going way too far looks like, but we also know that physical punishment is okay when it’s reasonably tailored to correct a child’s behavior, where is the line between discipline and abuse, and how can parents avoid crossing it?
In Washington, child “abuse” is defined as “injury of a child by any person under circumstances which cause harm to the child’s health, welfare, or safety.” When potential child abuse cases come before a court, the court will evaluate the child’s age, size, and health condition, as well as the location of the child’s injury and the surrounding circumstances, to help determine whether the acts at issue were reasonable discipline or abuse.
The moral of the story is, yes, you are legally allowed as a parent to correctively spank your child. However, you must keep in mind (both for your sake as well as your child’s) that physical punishment should always be:
- reasonable and moderate
- inflicted by a parent, guardian, teacher, or someone with advanced parental permission
- intended to correct or restrain the child
If you find yourself facing child abuse allegations in response to perceptions about how you discipline your children, please contact us at 206.826.1400 or firstname.lastname@example.org. We are compassionate, attentive, and experienced advocates who help parents in these difficult circumstances.