What are Parental Rights?

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  • 0:05 Parenthood
  • 0:35 Parental Rights
  • 2:02 Parental Rights &…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Parents have certain rights that are legally and ethically guaranteed to them. Explore what these rights are, who can hold them, and how they can be terminated. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.


Raising a child takes a lot of work and thought, and planning, and worrying, and filling out forms and all sorts of other things. It may seem like a lot, but really, who else is going to do it? With all of that responsibility comes some rights, which makes sense because there are some rights over a child's life that only a parent should have. After all, it wouldn't make sense if every person in a child's life had a say in how a child should be medically treated or educated, would it?

Parental Rights

In the broadest sense, parental rights are the inalienable rights parents have to make what they believe to be the best decision for their child. More specifically, when we, in the USA, use this term, we are most often referring to the legal rights of a parent to act on behalf of their child. Basically, this just means that since we have decided that any person under the age of 18 is not emotionally responsible enough to make their own major decisions, a parent can legally make those decisions instead.

The official list of parental rights varies by state, but, in general, here's what parents can legally do for their child: make decisions about medical treatment; create and negotiate contracts; make major legal, personal and religious decisions; and pass property through inheritance. Beyond that, parents can, in general, legally hold physical custody of the child, meaning that the child lives with the parent or parents. These are the basic parental rights, but again, what it really boils down to is the right to make all-important decisions for a child. Now, there are some things that the government mandates, like school. Parents must send their children to school, but parents can express their parental rights through enrolling in private or home schooling. Parents can also use the democratic process to protest against laws they don't think are fair.

Parental Rights & Blended Families

Often, parental rights are assumed to be the rights given to. . . well, parents. But what if a child has no parents? Or what if the parents are unable to take care of the child? Legal parental rights can be passed on to other individuals who are willing and able to raise the child. This is actually pretty important, since more and more modern American children are being raised in blended families, meaning that all members are not necessarily biologically related. For example, say that two people get divorced, and the kids live with their mom. Mom gets remarried, so now the kids have a stepfather who is not their biological father. That's an example of a blended family.

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