Physical Discipline of a Child - Authorized Use of Force

Minnesota authorizes use of force against another person, without their consent, under limited circumstances outlined in Minn. Stat. 609.06. The most common example is self-defense. But, a common scenario that often gets overlooked is that a “parent, guardian, teacher, or other lawful custodian” may use reasonable force to “restrain or correct” a child or student. Essentially, a parent is authorized to use physical discipline of a child. Critical, though, is that the parent can only use a reasonable amount of force.

But what is a reasonable amount of force when applying physical discipline of a child?

A parent should feel confident that spanking a child is lawful, as well as a slap on the child to discipline. But, when the physical discipline applied involves multiple acts or is for an extended period of time, then the analysis can get tricky.

Minnesota appellate courts have not analyzed this issue in much detail. One court laid out the following circumstances that a district court should consider when determining what is reasonable for physical discipline of a child: the child’s age, height, and weight; the seriousness of the infraction; the degree of force used by the parent; and the physical impact of the discipline. While helpful, this leaves a lot to be desired in providing much guidance.

This leaves us looking for guidance from other jurisdictions and academia. The Supreme Court of the United States has long held that parenting rights are a fundamental liberty to parents. Because of this, courts should apply a relatively high threshold for state intervention – particularly in the criminal context.

With this background in mind, courts have found that a parent slapping a child twice and spanking the child with a wooden spoon was a reasonable use of force. Another court found dozens of slaps with a wooden paddle also reasonable. Conversely, parents shaving their daughters head, and forcing her to run around the neighborhood for thirty minutes while wearing a diaper was unreasonable.

Point being, courts will grant parents leeway in using reasonable force in utilizing physical discipline of a child. But, this only goes so far and key is the physical discipline must be reasonable. If you are a parent and saddled with criminal charges because of a parenting act, it is critical to get a team that knows the scope of your rights as a parent.