Corporal Punishment: Is it Illegal to Spank a Child in Texas?
Many of us — the author included — were spanked by our parents growing up. It wasn’t uncommon for mom or dad to spank us with whatever they could get their hands on — belts, wooden spoons, switches.
Times have changed, however, and corporal punishment is not as acceptable as it used to be. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has a policy statement advising parents against ever spanking their children, which begs the question:
Is it Illegal to Spank a Child in Texas?
The short answer is no — spanking is not illegal as long as it is reasonable discipline. In Texas, the law gives parents, stepparents, grandparents and legal guardians leeway in disciplining their children, but it must be “reasonable” and not cross the line into abuse. Problem is, sometimes that line is blurred. (If you were looking for spanking of a more adult variety, you’re looking for our article on the legality of BDSM.)
The Line Between Reasonable Discipline and Child Abuse
At what point does physical punishment end and abuse begin? We must use common sense and look to the law for guidance.
What are the Criminal Laws Regarding Spanking in Texas?
Depending on the age of the child, abuse could fall under two categories: injury to a child or assault bodily injury family violence. Individuals accused of abusing a child under age 15 could face a charge of injury to a child, while those accused of abusing a kid over age 15 could face a charge of assault bodily injury family violence. Here’s a look at two statues that make it illegal to spank a child in Texas:
Under Section 22.04 of the Texas Penal Code, a person commits injury to a child if, through act or omission of an act, he intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly causes a child:
- Serious bodily injury
- Serious mental deficiency, impairment, or injury; or
- Bodily injury (bodily injury means physical pain, illness or impairment of physical condition) (but see the Reasonable Discipline defense below.)
Assault with Bodily Injury of a Family Member (ABI-FM)
Under Section 22.01 (a)(1) of the Texas Penal Code and section 71.003 of the Texas Family Code, a person commits assault bodily injury family violence if they:
- Intentionally, knowingly or recklessly cause bodily injury to a family member (bodily injury means physical pain, illness or impairment of physical condition)
Clearly, spanking a child causes pain, which under both of these statutes would
constitute bodily injury and a law violation. However, there is a defense – called the Reasonable Discipline Defense — which allows parents and guardians to use force on children for disciplinary purposes.
The Reasonable Discipline Defense
Children suffering from malnourishment, broken bones, and head injuries are often obvious cases of child abuse. But what about spanking a child with a belt for misbehaving or popping them in the mouth for cursing?
The fact is that Texas allows for reasonable discipline. Section 9.61 of the Texas Penal Code says that a parent’s use of force, but not deadly force, against a child younger than 18 will be justified if the parents or guardian “reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline a child or to safeguard or promote his welfare.”
So what is “reasonable belief?” The law defines it as a “belief that would be held by an ordinary and prudent man in the same circumstance as the actor.”
AG Opinion: When is Discipline Abuse?
The Texas Attorney General has offered some guidelines on its website to help parents and guardians identify potential abusive actions. and when it may be illegal to spank a child in Texas. They include:
- Striking a child above the waist
- Spanking with instruments other than a belt or brush, such as electrical or phone cords, yardsticks, ropes, shoes or wires
- Hitting a child in anger
- Punishment that causes injury, such as a bruise, welt, or swelling or requires medical attention
Examples of Discipline that Led to Criminal Charges
Despite the laws on the books and the Texas Attorney General’s guidelines, the line between abuse and discipline is not always clear cut. In many instances, a judge or jury will be the ones to have the final say. Here’s a look at some recent real-life examples of disciplinary actions that led to criminal charges and the outcomes:
- In December 2019, a Texas mom caught on video whipping her son with a belt at school and making him apologize to a teacher was arrested and charged with injury to a child. Brittanie Thomas is accused of hitting her 7-year-old son at Homer Elementary School in Beaumont, Texas, in November after she learned he was in trouble with a teacher. A video of the incident was uploaded on Facebook and viewed hundreds of thousands of times.
- In 2014, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was charged with one count of reckless or negligent injury to a child, a felony, after being accused of disciplining his 4-year-old son with a switch at his home in Spring, Texas. The child sustained cuts and bruises to his legs, back, arms and buttocks. In November 2014, a month before his jury trial, Peterson reached an agreement with Montgomery County prosecutors and pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault. In exchange, he was placed on two years’ probation, ordered to pay a $4,000 fine and complete 80 hours of community service. He also was ordered to take parenting classes.
- In 2012, an Odessa mother arrested and charged with injury to a child after she slapped her 12-year-old daughter across the face for smarting off. The girl sustained a bloody nose. A grand jury later no-billed the case.
- In June 2011, a Corpus Christi mother of three reached an agreement with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to injury to a child for spanking her nearly 2-year-old daughter. In exchange, she was sentenced to five years’ probation and got a stern lecture from a judge who warned, “You don’t spank children today.”
- In November 2016, a Tarrant County jury acquitted a man charged with assault for disciplining his son after driving by a Haslet gas station and finding him loitering in the parking lot during school hours. When the father confronted the son about being truant, the 16-year-old told his father “F— You” and called him by his first name in a sign of disrespect. The father backhanded his son in the mouth and a scuffle ensued – all of which was captured on video. The father was subsequently charged with assault causing bodily injury of a family member, a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail. During the father’s trial, defense attorneys Leticia “Letty” Martinez and Anna Summersett, both partners at Varghese Summersett PLLC, argued that the father had a right to reasonably discipline his son. The jury deliberated less than 30 minutes before acquitting the father.
The Takeaway Regarding Whether or Not it’s Illegal to Spank a Child in Texas:
Spanking or physically disciplining children is legal in Texas as long it’s reasonable and doesn’t cross the line into abuse. If you are under investigation or have been charged in connection with disciplining a child, give us a call. We can help.
If you or a loved one is facing a charge stemming from punishing your child, call us at (817) 203-2220 for a complimentary strategy session. Our team of former prosecutors and Board Certified Criminal Lawyers can help. During this call we will:
- Discuss the facts of your case;
- Discuss the legal issues involved, including the direct and collateral consequences of the allegation; and
- Discuss the defenses that apply to your plan and in general terms discuss our approach to your case.