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Where Does Missouri Law Place the Line Between Spanking and Abuse?

A recent story in the national headlines involved a young woman revealing that her father, who was a judge in Texas, had spanked and even used a belt on her as a form of punishment. Many parents struggle to figure out how to properly discipline their kids. Some find spanking a useful tool for training, others are against it. But what does Missouri law actually say about this type of discipline? KSMU’s Rebekah Clark talks to Greene County Prosecutor Dan Patterson for some answers.


For Missourians, there is a legal line between what is considered discipline and what is abuse. Attorney Dan Patterson clarifies.

“The mandated reporter law defines abuse as any physical injury inflicted upon a child other than by accidental means. So with regards to spanking, it specifically provides that discipline, including spanking administered in a reasonable manner, will not be construed to be abuse for the purpose of the mandated reporter statute.”  

So, you might be wondering, what is a “reasonable manner?” Patterson says it’s up to the mandated reporter—or witness of the spanking—to determine if a line is crossed. Legally, he says his office looks for certain signs showing that a report of abuse is valid.

“We look at the purpose of the spanking: was it discipline, or out of anger and simply an assault? We look at the age of the child: is the child too young to appreciate a spanking? Is the child too old such that it’s really an assault? We look at the location of the spanking: is it on the fleshy part of the bottom where one typically thinks of the spanking, or is it on the backs of the legs or on the back of the child in some other location?”

Patterson says any marks or signs of injury resulting from a spanking tend to involve abuse, and usually those cases aren’t accidental. Usually, he says, the adult steps over the line out of their own frustration.

Patterson says parents should practice disciplining their kids in a calm and thoughtful way.

“Now, that could include spanking, the key is not to punish out of anger…While spanking may be appropriate, it’s important not to do it out of anger so that it turns into an assault and an out-of-control behavior.” 

Patterson stresses that spanking is a parent’s independent choice. However, he reminds parents that reasonable punishment doesn’t include injury to the child.

A link to the prosecutor’s website can be found at KSMU.org. The link will refer you to frequently asked questions about child abuse and prevention.

For KSMU News, I’m Rebekah Clark.

Click here for a link to the Prosecuting Attorney's website.