The Supreme Judicial Court today reversed the assault-and-battery conviction of a Brockton man arrested after spanking his three-year-old daughter in view of two police detectives.
The court noted that corporal punishment "as an integral aspect of parental autonomy" remains widely accepted in American society and so in the absence of specific laws on the subject, "we must guard against the imposition of criminal sanctions for the use of parenting techniques still widely regarded as permissible and warranted."
Spanking, the court concluded, is OK - as long as it doesn't go too far:
We hold that a parent or guardian may not be subjected to criminal liability for the use of force against a minor child under the care and supervision of the parent or guardian, provided that (1) the force used against the minor child is reasonable; (2) the force is reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor, including the prevention or punishment of the minor's misconduct; and (3) the force used neither causes, nor creates a substantial risk of causing, physical harm (beyond fleeting pain or minor, transient marks), gross degradation, or severe mental distress.
By requiring that the force be reasonable and reasonably related to a legitimate purpose, this approach effectively balances respect for parental decisions regarding the care and upbringing of minor children with the Commonwealth's compelling interest in protecting children against abuse. By additionally specifying certain types of force that are invariably unreasonable, this approach clarifies the meaning of the reasonableness standard and provides guidance to courts and parents.
The court added, however:
We recognize that the balance we strike with the parental privilege defense may well be imperfect and that absolute equipoise between the goals of protecting the welfare of children and safeguarding the legitimate exercise of parental autonomy is likely unattainable. To the extent that that is so, the balance will tip in favor of the protection of children from abuse inflicted in the guise of discipline.