What Is (And What Isn’t) Child Abuse – The Arizona Spanking Law

Categories: Child Custody , Family Law

Child AbuseAs an Arizona State Bar Certified Specialist in family law matters in Arizona, I am often involved in cases where child abuse is alleged by or against one or both parties.  Child abuse is a very serious matter, and the recent killing of a 9 year old boy in Arizona is a reminder to us all that abuse occurs, and abuse is real.

At the same time, abuse is often alleged when there has been no abuse.  In the United States, under Arizona state’s law, a parent may spank a child or take other appropriate physical punishment.  As relevant to parents, Arizona law, A.R.S. § 13-403, which is found within the criminal code, provide the following:

13-403. Justification; use of physical force

The use of physical force upon another person which would otherwise constitute an offense is justifiable and not criminal under any of the following circumstances:

  1. A parent or guardian and a teacher or other person entrusted with the care and supervision of a minor or incompetent person may use reasonable and appropriate physical force upon the minor or incompetent person when and to the extent reasonably necessary and appropriate to maintain discipline.

Accordingly, while walking up to a stranger and striking them on the buttocks with your bare hands may result in your arrest and conviction for battery, spanking your child is a justified use of physical force “when and to the extent reasonably necessary and appropriate to maintain discipline.”

Perhaps the next question is, when and to what extent?  My advice to parents who are divorced, divorcing, or anticipating a divorce, is that you immediately stop any corporal punishment, and immediately find other ways of discipline.

In a healthy marriage, Parent A may spank the child, and when child complains about the physical discipline to Parent B, Parent B would back up Parent A and reiterate to the child that his behavior (leading to the spanking) was inappropriate.  Child quickly learns to correct his behavior, rather than seeking to pit the two parents against each other.

However, in the exact same scenario, except that the parents are divorced or divorcing, and Parent B believes that he/she has hit gold, and immediately calls the police, calls the Department of Child Safety, calls his/her attorney, and the matter quickly escalates into a huge allegation of domestic violence and Parent A being accused of child abuse.  At the end of the court proceedings, Parent A who spanked the child will not likely be penalized as per the statute set forth above such spanking is legally permissible.  However, Parent A may have temporarily lost his/her parenting time while the matter was resolved, may have incurred significant attorney fees (criminal and family law) may have been forced to deal unnecessarily with an intrusion into his home and life by DCS, and may have otherwise spent time, money, and emotional effort on what should have been a non-issue.

In short, if you are in a healthy marriage, and you have a child that requires discipline by spanking, you may appropriately swat the child on the buttocks.  However, if you are divorced or divorcing, I strongly advise parents against disciplining their children as the likely repercussions are extensive and likely not worth the value of the discipline to be achieved.

For those in a healthy marriage, remember that the spanking or other corporal punishment of children must still be “to the extent reasonably necessary and appropriate to maintain discipline.”  Do not hit a child with closed fists.  Do not use belt buckles or other metal objects that may cause physical injury.  Do not apply any discipline while angry.  When in doubt, walk away for an hour or two in order to make sure that you are calm, and that your discipline is based out of love and a desire to train your child, and not based out of frustration or anger.

If you are involved in a divorce, legal separation, or annulment case or other family law case, and if you have determined that you need experienced legal representation, please call 800-899-2730 and ask to speak with Douglas C. Gardner, or visit our website at