What About Parent'S Rights?

Rights are important - we all have them. Rights are about how we live in our society and the respect we have for each other. From time to time there is a lot of discussion about rights in the media and it is a topic often discussed in schools. Talking about rights can make parents feel anxious and uncertain where they stand, particularly with their children when it comes to discipline and setting limits.

As the understanding and use of the term ‘rights’ increases, there has been some confusion that the idea of children having rights means somehow that parents lose theirs, but this is not the case. Often a lot of the talk about rights is really a conversation about exercising your will and getting your own way. This is not what is meant by rights. Children’s rights include things like the right to be safe, to be treated with affection, to be educated, to have medical care and to be protected against cruelty and abuse.

Parents are there to protect children’s rights until they are old enough to make their way in the world. It is important to remember that parents have rights too!

Note: While this topic looks at what is meant by Rights generally and should be helpful to all parents, the examples of the law are specific to South Australia. It is important to check the laws where you live to see what rights and responsibilities parents have.

The law in South Australia

Usually there are laws which are spelled out in Acts of Parliament. These say what people can and cannot do.

There is not one single Act of Parliament that actually sets out all the rights and duties that parents have.

What we have are a number of different Acts that spell out the legal authority that parents have in certain areas. Some are:

• Education Act
• Family Law Act
• Children’s Protection Act

Not all situations that parents face when bringing up children are covered by Acts. For example there is no Act which says when a child can or cannot leave home and there is no Act that clearly spells out exactly how far parents can go with physical punishment.

Over the years judges have made decisions on particular cases that have come before them that serve as a guide. The guide provided by these decisions is called 'Common Law'. For example,

'Common Law' talks about physical punishment needing to be 'reasonable' and 'moderate'.

It is easy to see how parents can be very confused as they try to make sense of all the different laws that state when children can and cannot do things.

The law is clear that as a parent you have the responsibility to care for and protect your child.

A child in South Australia is a person under 18 years.

A parent's rights and duties

For the most part, the law allows parents to bring up their children according to their own values and beliefs. This means that you have the right to make decisions about your child’s upbringing without interference unless there are very good reasons and your child’s well-being is at risk.

Decisions such as religion, schooling, discipline, medical treatment and where your child lives are your right and responsibility to make and will not be interfered with unless, for example, your child is badly treated, is not receiving education, is not allowed medical treatment when it is needed or there is an order by a court.

As a parent you have a duty to:

• protect your child from harm

• provide your child with food, clothing and a place to live

• financially support your child

• provide safety, supervision and control

• provide medical care

• provide an education.

When children challenge

Children and young people are given a lot more information these days about human rights. Often this can be in class discussion about children suffering in developing countries because of war, or in discussions about the law and young people. Sometimes children can try out these words at home, particularly when they are upset or not getting what they want.

'Rights' talk may not always be helpful or useful when parents are trying to cope with their children growing up and testing the limits.

The real tensions arise when children challenge and say things like "I have the right to ... and you can’t make me". Often when this happens in the family home there is confusion and upsets occur.

These are a few things to think about:

• Children wanting their own way or testing the limits is not about rights.

• It is very important that you don’t get thrown by such behaviour and stay confident in your authority to set limits in your family for your child’s well-being.

• Challenging parents is what most young people do as they grow up. A very normal part of preparing for 'breaking away' and moving into adulthood is to challenge.

• Remember you're the adult here.

As children grow older, the law recognises that they are now able to make various decisions for themselves. The ages when they can depends on the importance of the decision and your child’s maturity to make it. For example, the law allows:

-12 year olds to consent to their own adoption
-16 year olds to make decisions about their own medical treatment
-17 year olds to give consent to sexual intercourse.

What parents can feel

Teenagers can sometimes be very persistent and demanding about their rights and parents can feel worn down when they hear comments like "It’s my right ... and you can’t stop me".

You may have some of these common reactions:

• anger that there’s even been a discussion about children’s rights

• that your parental authority has been threatened

• you have no control and feel powerless

• that organisations or agencies are on your child’s side and not interested in your views

• unsure about where you stand because you don’t know if the information your child is giving you is right or wrong

These feelings may be even stronger if you are struggling with other pressing responsibilities or stresses at the same time.

What parents can do

The real nitty gritty of conflict between parents and children can be over such things as wanting more freedom, time limits, friends, sexual freedom, wanting to go out when it’s time to be studying and having their own point of view. There are all sorts of ways of handling these dilemmas and the initial response is usually an emotional one.

These things might help

• Talk to yourself. It is not worth having a ‘war’ about these issues because it damages or destroys your relationship with your child. Having a relationship which allows differences to be expressed without fear is a good and healthy one.

• Don’t over-react. This can be hard. Talk to your child about the issue he has brought up but at a time that’s right for you. There’s no point in talking about it while you feel angry or upset or have a lot of other pressures on you. Remember children often drop these bombshells at the most inconvenient times, such as when you’re getting a meal, attending to other children, driving the car or when the washing machine has flooded!

• When the time’s right, talk with your child. It is important to open the way for your child to talk. The aim is to be able to have a conversation where you and your child can equally and seriously share ideas and views without emotions overriding the talk. Show interest in what your child is saying (even if you strongly disagree).

• Make an agreement that each person can have a say without interruption. Each then feels they are being taken seriously and are likely to be more open to ideas and solutions. It is a common reaction for parents to give out advice or a ‘sermon’ when they feel their child is saying something they are against. Interrupting to disagree not only stops communication, it also discourages children from finding helpful ways to sort it out.

• Find out how and where your child got the information. For example, was there a discussion at school about homeless children that mentioned when young people could leave home and how they could get money to support themselves? This may have been summed up or interpreted by your child as meaning ‘you can leave home whenever you like and get money’. Obviously it is not as simple as this, and governments believe that children are best with their parents unless children are unsafe.

• Talk to the person who was the source of the information if this is possible and if you feel you need to know more. Often children will select bits of information that suit them and ‘forget’ the rest. Of course sometimes young people can be very vague about where they got the information from but talk as if it’s ‘gospel’. Most young people believe that everybody has a lot more freedom and has far more flexible and understanding parents than they have!

• Make a wise judgment. Be clear in your own mind about how important the issue really is. Will my child be in any harm in doing or having this? Is my child just wanting to test the limits with this argument to show her independence (a normal part of adolescence)? Is my own frustration and determination to be right making the situation worse? Most parents feel that if they ‘give in’ they have lost some control. Wise parents weigh up all the information and are prepared to ‘let go’ on matters that are not so important and remain firm on those that really count.

• Make contact with agencies or departments if you feel they seem to be supporting your child without hearing your side of the story. It is important to make sure your views are taken seriously. You might need to make an appointment to speak to the person who has the ‘decision-making power’. Take a friend with you for support. This also helps in remembering what is discussed.


• Rights are important . . . we all have them.

• Don’t confuse ‘wanting your own way’ or ‘testing the limits’ with ‘rights’.

• Remember that as the parent you have the right to set reasonable limits.

• Parents need to relax their control as children mature in order to help them prepare for adulthood.

• Teenagers need to express their will as a normal part of developing.

• Build a healthy relationship with your child that allows differences to be expressed without fear.

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