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Dr. Stephen Boos speaks out on recent Massachusetts court guidelines on spanking

June 30, 2015
Stephen Boos, MD

To spank or not to spank?

Today the debate rages on as to whether it is a parent’s right or a civil rights violation – a dividing topic that received  national attention last year when football player Adrian Peterson was charged with felony child abuse for striking his 4-year-old son with a wooden switch.

The court's decision

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court on June 25 weighed in on the debate by establishing legal guidelines for the use of physical punishment by parents. A decision which has since garnered varied reactions, especially from child advocates who claim the ruling gives “permission” to parents to use aggression in disciplining their children.

According to the court, physical punishment by spanking is OK as long as “reasonable” force is used and the child is not harmed. The overall balance tips in favor of protecting children from abuse masking as discipline and leaving them with lasting physical or emotional harm.

Justice Barbara Lenk noted that in creating the framework on corporal punishment, the Justices were careful to weigh protecting children against abuse, while avoiding unnecessary interference with the rights of parents to raise their children without undue state interference.

A pediatrician's take

Dr. Stephen Boos, Baystate’s child abuse pediatrician, had quite a different response, noting the court’s decision contains many words whose meanings are unclear.

“Based on my experience in court, I believe that the ruling will be interpreted inconsistently. This situation can only produce injustice for children, families and communities. What force is ‘reasonable?’ What actual physical harms are ‘serious’ or ‘substantial?’ Is a bruise a ‘transient mark’ because it goes away in a few weeks, or is this only meant to indicate red marks or welts that go away in hours? If blows are to the face or abdomen, do they pose ‘substantial risk,’ even when there is no actual internal injuries? Finally, how can we establish that any application of force is ‘reasonably related to a legitimate purpose?’” said Dr. Boos of the Family Advocacy Center at Baystate Children’s Hospital.

He said different parents, attorneys, clinicians, case workers, and judges will answer these questions differently.

Short-term benefits v. long-term problems

There is substantial research on spanking that demonstrates any potential benefit of spanking is short term, and that discipline by spanking causes long-term behavior problems in children.

“Will this be serious or substantial emotional harm? No-one, not the child’s parents and not a court, can know until the harm has already been done. A court simply does not possess the ability to determine that any spanking event of any child will or will not cause emotional harm. It is clear, however, that spanking as a practice is not ‘reasonably related to the legitimate purpose’ of giving children their best chance to be happy and successful. Our children would be best off if no one was spanked, and parents were supported in using more effective methods to develop their child’s self-discipline,” Dr. Boos said.

Setting clear expectations

The Baystate child abuse expert noted if the court wishes to set a bar, it should be a clear one.

“Spanking could be made illegal, as it is in many European countries. Spanking could be legal on certain parts of the body, with certain implements, say spanking on the buttocks with an open hand. Spanking could be legal, so long as it does not leave a bruise, abrasion, laceration, or internal injuries. But to define permissible spanking in vague terms that rest on concepts that vary across cultures is to set no bar at all,” Dr. Boos said.

“We are uncomfortable as a society with many aspects of parenting, including spanking. We are also uncomfortable with government intrusion into the private world of families. But children are not their parent’s property, and society has an interest in seeing that our future citizens are prepared to be the best that they can be. While the ruling does make it clear that spanking is not illegal in Massachusetts, my experience indicates this was already understood. Unfortunately, the ruling does not create a clear line between permissible spanking and criminal abuse. As a physician who works with families to manage their child’s behavior, and works with courts to determine if a child has been abused, I do not see how this ruling will help the judges, Department of Children and Families workers, clinicians, or families who care for the state’s children,” he added.