Canada's top court has upheld a law allowing parents to spank their children, but also set guidelines outlining "reasonable limits" to the act.

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to repeal Section 43 of the Criminal Code that allows parents and school teachers to physically discipline children in their care by using "reasonable" force.

In its decision Friday, the court ruled that reasonable corrective force can be used against children between the ages of two and 12 years old.

The court said it was unacceptable to hit a child with an object, like a belt or paddle. Blows and slaps to the child's head would also be unacceptable.

For corporal punishment to be legally acceptable, it must involve only "minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature," the court ruled.

Ailsa Watkinson, the Saskatchewan mother who began the legal challenge nine years ago, said she was disappointed in Friday's ruling. "'Don't hit a child on the head, don't use a ruler, don't use a belt.' It seems so strange to me that we have to have a Supreme Court ruling setting those parameters," said Watkinson. "That just seems to be imminent good sense."

"And that's the problem with Section 43. It still gives us outs. It still allows the idea and perpetuates the notion that children are second-class citizens."

The Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law brought the case to the top court, seeking to strike down the law.

"I am very heartened by all those narrowings and restrictions, but I am somewhat disappointed that the court did not recognize children as human beings with equal rights," said the foundation's spokesperson Martha Mackinnon.

Lawyers for the children's organization argued that the Criminal Code provision is a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedom, and makes children "second class citizens."

"This case is about the right of children not to be hit, a right that in a modern, 21st-century democracy should be unquestioned," said lawyer Paul Schabas when he argued the case before the Supreme Court.

But the federal government argued Section 43 should stay in place, saying the law strikes a balance between the needs of parents and the rights of children.

The Justice Department says it does not advocate spanking, but that repealing the law could make parents liable to criminal charges each time they spank their children.

Many teachers and education officials have defended keeping Section 43 as it is.

Terry Price of the Canadian Teachers Federation, another group that had intervenor status in the case, worried that repealing Section 43 could result in teachers being charged with assault for breaking up a schoolyard fight.

"And I as a parent would certainly want to know that someone is going to intervene if my child was involved in an altercation," said Price.

Section 43 of the Criminal Code was passed in 1892 and has been amended several times.

Michael Martens of Focus on the Family, an organization that supported the law, said he was "strongly encouraged" by the decision.

"The Supreme Court has recognized the need to protect parents in their role in raising children," said Martens. "Especially that they are not criminals."

The Ontario Court of Appeal upheld Section 43 in January 2002. The court ruled that parents and teachers are free to spank children for disciplinary purposes if they limit themselves to "reasonable force."