Some more fuel for the fire in the national debate over spanking: The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court just ruled that the practice is acceptable, but when handling cases that could go either way, authorities should err on the side of the child’s physical and emotional safety.

The Boston Globe reports on the decision, which lays out an explicit right for parents to use “reasonable” force in disciplining their kids, i.e. spank them. Specifically, the court overturned a Massachusetts father’s assault conviction:

The SJC was ruling on a 2011 case involving a commotion at a Brockton bus terminal, where Jean Dorvil was walking with his daughter and her mother. According to police, Dorvil kicked his daughter in her backside while yelling “shut up,” and then spanked her. The officer said he saw the mother pick up the child to shield her, and that the child was crying and looked frightened.

When the officers approached, Dorvil said he was disciplining his child. He denied kicking the child, saying he was just playing around. A second officer also described the kick as slow and hesitant, according to the court ruling.

Dorvil was charged with assault and battery. At trial, Dorvil and the child’s mother testified that he spanked her because the child disobeyed his direction to go to his mother and continued to play on the sidewalk near the street. He denied ever telling her to shut up.

The daughter, by the way, was not quite three years old. He was found guilty and an appeals court uphold the decision, citing the fact that he’d been “upset and angry.” The high court, however, ruled that, “It is understandable that parents would be angry at a child whose misbehavior necessitates punishment, and we see no reason why such anger should render otherwise reasonable uses of force impermissible.”

The court then used the decision to hand down guidelines for what’s acceptable. For one thing, it must be “reasonably related to the purpose of safeguarding or promoting the welfare of the minor.” They also laid out:

“It follows that we must guard against the imposition of criminal sanctions for the use of parenting techniques still widely regarded as permissible and warranted,” the court held in a unanimous decision written by Justice Barbara Lenk.

At the same time, the court sought to strike a balance between parental rights and protecting children against abuse. In cases where it is difficult for authorities to distinguish between discipline and abuse, children’s safety should be given priority.

“The balance will tip in favor of the protection of children,” the decision held.

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Of course, spanking opponents say the best thing for children would be to forgo the practice completely. Massachusetts Citizens for Children’s Jetta Berniere reacted to the decision: “It implies that physical punishment can, in fact, support the welfare of children,” adding that, “I would object to that altogether.”

Obviously you adults can continue spanking each other for fun all day every day if that floats your boat.


Contact the author at kelly@jezebel.com.

Photo via Sean Pavone/Shutterstock. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s the State House.

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