Beating your child in the face with a leather belt is not acceptable parental discipline, court rules

The Massachusetts Appeals Court today upheld a Dorchester woman's conviction for assault and battery with a dangerous weapon - the belt with which she struck her five-year-old son in the face after he acted out in kindergarten.

In an appeal of her sentence, Janera Dobson's attorney cited a 2015 Supreme Judicial Court ruling that upheld the "parental discipline privilege," the right of parents to use some physical force in disciplining children, and said that Dobson hadn't meant to beat her child in the face with the belt - only his legs - but that she missed on one stroke.

But the appeals court noted that the SJC decision set limits on the force that parents could use, that it be "reasonable" and that it "neither causes, nor creates a substantial risk of causing, physical harm (beyond fleeting pain or minor, transient marks), gross degradation, or severe mental distress."

The court ruled that Dobson went far beyond that on May 2, 2014, and that the evidence was clear she intended to beat her child in the face with the belt - leaving a red mark that was visible for a long time.

Hitting a five year old in the face with a leather belt with sufficient force to leave a mark could well have caused serious injury to his eyes or some other part of his face. Cases have long acknowledged that a belt can be used as a dangerous weapon, particularly when employed against a child. ...

The question then, is whether such a use of force was reasonable, under all of the circumstances, as a matter of parental discipline, under the principles explained in Dorvil, supra. In evaluating the reasonableness of striking a child in the face with a belt, the judge properly could take into account a variety of factors, including "the child's 'age,' the 'physical and mental condition of the child,' and 'the nature of [the child's] offense,'" among others. ... Here, the only additional evidence was the mother's testimony that her child had "acted out" at school on "numerous" occasions, and that she disciplined him for having deliberately done so again on a day when there were observers in the child's kindergarten classroom. There was no indication that the discipline was used for the child's safety -- for example, to keep him from going into the street or touching something hot. On this evidence, the judge rationally could have found that it was unreasonable for the mother to strike her five year old child in the face with a leather belt for unspecified misbehavior in his kindergarten classroom. ...




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Good call

I used to wonder why I wasn't allowed to discipline other adults in public by smacking them in the face with a belt, when that was defended as being "discipline" when a much larger person inflicted it on a much smaller person.

If you are resorting to physical violence toward a child and calling it "discipline", you are the one who seriously needs to grow up and learn to control yourself.

And if physically attacking your child with weapons is your idea of "discipline", then don't be surprised when your child continues to mimic your poorly moderated behavior and utter lack of self-control in school and elsewhere.

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By on

The decision is very well reasoned. I personally advocate for eliminating spanking, for similar reasons to the ones SwirlyGrrl outlined. But as a child and family therapist, I also realize that many stable and loving families choose physical punishment, and I do applaud the courts for outlining the distinctions between outright unacceptable violence as unfortunately occurred in this family, and legal physical punishment that some families may choose.

When asked my opinion, I will tell families about the research and suggest they instead use a stern lecture, grounding, explaining why something absolutely may not happen again in this house, and so forth. But I'm also not going to label families abusive who've made the decision to hit a child on the buttocks for a specific unsafe or extremely disrespectful behavior. Or parents who don't tend to resort to physical punishment, but lost it on their kid that one time the kid did something ridiculous. Every parent makes some choices that are optimal and some that are not. If a parent is consistent and their choices are done out of love and concern, the kid is probably being raised pretty well. I'm happy to see that the courts once again state that spanking alone is not abuse in a legal sense. I once worked in a preschool program with a policy of reporting any mention or observing of any physical punishment, like, seeing a parent who usually talks to their toddler about feelings and choice-making grab the toddler out of the path of a car and give them a swat on the butt. We don't need to be wasting resources and traumatizing families over something like that. We need to spend them helping families who beat their kid in the face with a belt.

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Never ok to hit another

By on

Never ok to hit another person unless to defend yourself in my eyes. If you do lose your cool then you should apologize and hope you are forgiven and the other person can heal from it. Adult or child. "You touched a hot stove and could have hurt yourself but didn't so now I'm going to hurt you for doing that" makes absolutely no sense.

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You are a sad little man

The central issue: other control versus self control.

My parents were too young to cope with children, and resorted to "other control". Consequently, I had to learn self-control from more mature sources, like teachers and coaches.

My kids were raised without physical attacks and physical punishment, but with firm discipline intended to cultivate self control.

They are adults now, and it appears to have worked. They are certainly better people than I, and have a lot more self-control than I did at their age.

You might learn from that, dear damaged child.

I don't run from my past or who I am like you do.

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What an asshole

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Best to stick to threats and insults, eh Swirly?

You are a complete flaming asshole. There, now you can diss me too -- or you could try, but I don't give a damn what a waste of oxygen like you thinks.

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Catholic school

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If I new then what I know now.
Every nun and Brother I had in school would be in jail for instilling discipline in classes of 55- 60 children every day.
Less I forget the Drill Instructors I had in Marine Corps.

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They should have been jailed

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Violent adults produced the Most Epic Violent Crime Wave Generation Ever with all this slapping and hitting. It taught a large generation of people that violent reactions were appropriate behavior, and lacking self control was an adult privilege.

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Older baby boomers

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Note how many people in their 60s and 70s are still committing violent crimes!

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I'm responding to you not

I'm responding to you not because I want to sound like I am support corporal punish. I don't. Part of me wants add my two cents based on my experiences growing up that agrees with Swirrly but I also don't want to agree with the way she framed people who have used it (including my parents, who largely done good).

So disclaimers said, your argument is dumb. There's so many good arguments against the use of corporal punishment and you choose the completely unverifiable argument. So many holes like compounding evidence like lead. Or arguments like corporal punishment existing way before recent generations. Or levels of violence in other cultures that is "okay" with these types of punishments but not known for the "Most Epic Violent Crime Wave Generation Ever".

If I ever have kids, I do not want to ever hit them. But please don't use arguments like yours where it risks derailing the main point because the supporting point is so weak.

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