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Debate: Should parents be held legally responsible for childrens' actions?

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Should parents be held legally responsible for children's actions?

Background and context

At the outset it must be noted that "parental responsibility" means different things in different contexts. In the United States and parts of Canada "parental responsibility" will often refer to a kind of law that hold parents legally accountable for the actions of their children. In some European countries and Australia the term refers to the responsibility parents have for the welfare for their children, as opposed to a power they have over them. In all of these countries the term is sometimes used to refer to legal custody of a child in situations of marital separation or divorce. In other instances it refers to a legal mandate that anyone biologically connected to a child holds permanent responsibility for, or has a voice in, decisions about the welfare of that child. Recent legislation related to parental responsibility has been enacted in Britain, several American states and Canadian provinces, as well as Australia. The European Union has developed statements and model laws relating to the human rights of children throughout the Union. Because of the different national contexts of the use of this term, students should be prepared to debate a range of propositions dealing with laws that mandate parents act in the interests of their children, remain in the lives of their children, or be held accountable for the criminal or civil liabilities of their children. Naturally these concerns have some overlap. While some arguments will occur in different contexts more often than others, the central principle remains the same. If we affirm the importance of parental responsibility we believe that parents have a social and moral - if not a legal - obligation to see to the welfare of their children until they reach the age of majority (in most laws the age of 18).


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Argument #1

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Yes

Legal requirements for parental action, particularly those that include sanctions for non-action provide an incentive for parents to act in a responsible fashion. If parents believe they will be held liable for their inaction, or the inappropriate actions of their children, they are more likely to make sure their children are supervised and well cared for.

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No

The causes at the core of juvenile delinquency, abusive families, and child neglect are not necessarily the kind of problems that can be solved by the leverage of criminal or civil sanctions. In instances where parents are absent or neglectful, deep social problems are often the cause. Problems such as alcoholism, poverty, poor education, poor health care, and family histories of abuse can lock a family into a cycle of problems that continue to perpetuate behaviours others might view as irresponsible. There is a danger that the proposed sanctions will make families trapped in such problems afraid to seek help from social services for fear of punishment.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Laws that enshrine parental responsibility improve family life. As parents are encouraged to take responsibility for their children, and such responsibility becomes a cultural norm, families will develop closer bonds, marriages will become stronger, and the problems of broken families will decrease.



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No

This argument stems from two flawed assumptions: first, that parents from separated or divorced families cannot act responsibly, and second, that doing "the right thing", necessarily equates with positive family values. A parent may play a very active role in the lives of their children, yet still have a horrible marriage or be mentally or physically abusive to the children. A parent who is not married to a child’s other parent may still play an active and valuable role in the life of the child they conceived, even if they do not live in the same home.



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Argument #4

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Yes

Parental responsibility laws help to compel parents who are delinquent in their support for a child to become involved - at least on a financial level. This can also discourage irresponsible men from indulging in promiscuous and reckless sexual behaviour, fathering a number of children by different mothers.



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No

Decades of legal experience in countries that order child support from separated or divorced parents have demonstrated that parents who want to sever ties (financial or otherwise) can do so, either by defaulting on payments or hiding from the law. These laws may even have a reverse effect by fostering resentment toward the child or other parent on the part of the parent compelled to provide support. Child support orders may also harm any subsequent children an estranged parent may have by impoverishing a second family in favour of the first.



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Argument #5

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Yes

Children are less likely to engage in acts of delinquency if they feel that their parents are likely to be held legally responsible for their actions.



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No

Children prone to engage in acts of serious juvenile delinquency are rarely interested in the feelings of or effects on parents. In fact, the worst juvenile delinquents are probably more likely to act out if they believe, first, that the action will result in harm to parents they seek to rebel against, and second, that their parents will be held responsible in place of them.



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