Child Abuse or Legitimate Punishment?

Misty Becker

September 29, 2014

When it comes to getting a divorce with children it can easily get very messy and complicated.  While no one wants this to happen, each side must balance their emotions as an individual and what how they view the opposing party.  This gets even more complicated when you add the stress inherent in parenting.

As a parent everything you do and every parenting rule you may have is analyzed not just by your divorcing spouse, but will ultimately be judged by the attorney for your ex and possibly a judge.  One of the common questions we get in our family law practice is  what kind of punishments are appropriate for your child.  If you and your spouse have different views of appropriate punishment, this will most likely come up as an issue in court.  When it comes to the types of punishments, corporal punishment can become a major dilemma in a child custody case.  

At the outset, corporal punishment is legal in Tennessee.  In fact, Tennessee is 1 of 19 states that extend the authority to physically punish a child to public school teachers and principals.  As Charles Barkley recently stated, this is very much part of the culture in the South.  But the question we have to answer and advise clients on in our family law practice, is when is the line crossed, when does corporal punishment turn into abuse?

The Tennessee Department of Health defines abuse as the “willful infliction of injury, unreasonable confinement, intimidation, or punishment with resulting physical harm, pain or mental anguish.” Stepping to the other side of this line will likely result in children being taken away from their parent.  The key point is that to constitute abuse the punishment must result in physical harm.  This means that in Tennessee, not every “spanking” , “whooping”, or even “licks” from a paddle or belt will rise to the level of abuse .  When it comes to defining abuse you must take into consideration the degree of the punishment.  As in are there marks on the child or is the child still suffering from the punishment the next day?  There is a line between corporal punishment and abuse and when it comes punishing your child you should always be sure not to cross it. Recently, NFL player Adrian Peterson is facing criminal charges on child abuse. He is facing the charges in Texas for using a wooden switch to spank his 4-year-old son in May. Adrian Peterson is not being charged because he spanked his son, but because the spanking he gave the child left marks and caused the child to suffer beyond the time of the spanking.  The question is one of degree.

Which brings the question back to how to handle child discipline in the context of a divorce or post-divorce proceeding.  The question is one of degree and the safest course is going to be to not put that question into the hands of your ex-spouse, a lawyer or judge.  Because of this, issues of corporal punishment require careful consideration and advice from your lawyer.