Iowa's Laws for Parents Disciplining Their Children

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In a 2010 paper released by Duke University of Law, entitled, "When and How to Draw the Line Between Reasonable Corporal Punishment and Abuse," U.S. law is summarized with "the parents in all states may physically discipline their children provided that such discipline does not cross the line to become physical abuse." Iowa is no exception. Parents are expected to discipline their children, and corporal punishment, such as spanking, is not illegal. If the law determines a parent has crossed the line between disciplining the child and inflicting injury, the parent can be charged with child abuse.

Laws Regarding Discipline Versus Abuse

According to the website of the Center for Effective Discipline, Iowa laws regarding parental discipline of children are as follows: "The use of corporal punishment by the person responsible for the care of a child, which does not result in a physical injury to the child, shall not be considered abuse (unless otherwise prohibited). Child endangerment includes using unreasonable force, torture, or cruelty which results in physical injury, is intended to cause serious injury, or causes substantial mental or emotional harm."

Spanking Versus Abuse

The law seems fairly straightforward. If a parent uses corporal punishment, such as spanking, and does not cause physical injury to the child, no law has been broken. If a parent uses unreasonable force and causes physical injury, the law considers it child abuse. Legal issues arise when there is disagreement over whether or not the severity of the corporal punishment constitutes physical injury.

Court Rulings

According to the Iowa State Extension Service website, signs of physical abuse of a child include bruises, lacerations, welts, burns, scalds and reddening of surface tissue lasting more than 24 hours. Reddening of surface tissue or bruising that lasts more than 24 hours is also considered a sign of abuse by the American Academy of Pediatrics. However, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that reddening of the skin for more than 24 hours is not necessarily a physical injury. In Hildreth versus The Iowa Department of Human Services, the court stated that “welts, bruises, or similar markings are not physical injuries per se but may be and frequently are evidence from which the existence of physical injury can be found.”


Iowa law considers other factors besides the length of a time a child has a bruise to determine whether or not the parent was acting lawfully. In the 1996 Iowa Supreme Court case, the State versus Arnold, the judges ruled that parents must not physically punish children simply because they are angry; they must be acting in the best interest of the child. The ruling stated, “Corrective purposes" means parents must use discipline only for behavior modification, not to "satisfy the passions of an angry parent." The ruling also said, “When the parent goes beyond the line of reasonable correction, his or her conduct becomes criminal.”