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By Denver Nicks
September 17, 2014

Most Americans can agree that Adrian Peterson crossed the line when he whipped his four-year-old son with a switch and left cuts and welts on the boy’s legs. But the line for what constitutes illegal behavior when it comes to parents striking their children is subject to different rules throughout the country.

Peterson seems to have genuinely believed at the time that he was not abusing his son. After all, it is legal to hit a child in all fifty U.S. states and the District of Columbia. States differ widely about what precisely is allowed.

In Delaware, for example, state law forbids a parent from hitting a child with a closed fist. But in Oklahoma, no such explicit prohibition exists. There, the law permits a parent to hit a child with a switch provided that the parent only uses “ordinary force.”

Much depends on the discretion of prosecutors. Both Arizona and Alabama allow the use of “reasonable and appropriate physical force,” but what is “reasonable and appropriate” in each state depends on existing case law and the interpretation of judges. The fact that Louisiana makes no mention of spanking but allows “reasonable discipline” that doesn’t “seriously endanger” the health of a child.

“It’s a very complex subject,” Director of the American Bar Association’s Center on Children and the Law Howard Davidson told TIME. “I personally favor parents knowing what the law says in terms of what they can and can’t do and just saying ‘reasonable’ doesn’t provide a lot of guidance,” he said.

In Texas, corporal punishment becomes child abuse when it “results in substantial harm to a child.” As a practical matter in Texas, that means a physical injury that leaves a mark, like bleeding and bruising, as Peterson apparently did.

The law in that state is clearer than some others about when a spanking becomes child abuse. That standard—when a swat leaves a mark—is common among many states but what exactly a “mark” is doesn’t always mean the same thing. In Maine, for instance, corporal punishment is lawful if it results “in no more than transient discomfort or minor temporary marks.” Georgia simply forbids any “physical injury,” but here again, what that means is largely at the discretion of judges and prosecutors.

Some, like Deb Sandek, program director with the Center for Effective Discipline, argue, not without evidence, that corporal punishment of any kind causes psychological trauma in children and should be banned entirely. “There are effective discipline strategies that teach children right from wrong,” she said. “Why not go in a more proactive strategy and help children learn to problem solve and handle conflict without aggression?”

Around the world 39 countries, including Malta, Bolivia, and Brazil this year, have banned corporal punishment of children.

But any such national ban would go against the grain of public opinion today: four out of five Americans believe spanking children is sometimes appropriate, according to a 2013 poll from the Nielsen-owned market research firm Harris Interactive. Barring a major shift in public opinion or judicial interpretation, on corporal punishment of children we’ll be grappling with the devil in the details for some time yet.

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