As violence by juveniles has increased in recent years, the debate about parents’ legal responsibility for children’s behavior has escalated in many social research and public circles as well as within institutions, including the vast childrens’ services complex.

Advocates of full parental accountability, who subscribe to the “vicious dog analogy" of legal responsibility (816), believe parents should know about and control their children’s actions, and accept their obligation to bear the consequences of their children’s mistakes. On the other side are those who believe parents should only be responsible for their children’s crimes if they failed to exercise “reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control" (814). Although critics ask what constitutes “reasonable" care, it is this argument which is more sound and has validity established through legal precedents. While parents typically do their best to ensure their children conform to moral and legal norms, they should not be held accountable when their children exercise self-will, however lacking in insight and good judgment, to commit criminal acts.

Parents bear many responsibilities, among them providing for their child’s basic needs, ensuring the child is educated, and protecting the child from harm. In addition, parents are responsible for instilling moral values and social norms. By teaching lessons about right and wrong, the parent prepares the child to embody normative behaviors in a society whose law and order depends upon the individual exercise of good judgment, reason, and insight. When children are young, parents are able to exert a considerable amount of influence in compelling them to conform to the values and norms they have been taught. Parents reinforce positive behavior, and punish those actions that do not conform to expectations. As a child ages and begins to develop his or her decision-making faculties, parental influence diminishes. The child has become individuated, and has developed a personhood all its own.

When a child who has been taught normative behavior chooses to commit a crime, then he or she should be held responsible. The only exceptions are when a parent has become aware of a situation that might have been prevented had they known about it and failed to intervene or when they provide the tools that lead to criminal acts. If, for example, a parent notices a child behaving erratically, then he or she is obligated to seek professional help for the child. Similarly, a parent has the responsibility to ensure that potentially harmful instruments that they themselves use, such as alcohol or guns, are not available to their children in the home. The “vicious dog" analogy of parental liability—that the parent should control a child just as an owner should control a dog—is not a convincing argument. A child is not a dog; a child has rational decision-making capacities. If it can be proved that a parent has provided the best care and has minimized access to tools of harm, he or she should not be accountable for a child’s decisions.

Critics contend that “reasonable care" is ambiguous, but courts have clearly established precedents that identify the criteria by which parental responsibility is determined. In Seifert v. Owen, three criteria were established. First, if a parent willingly gives a child an instrument that can harm others, he or she is accountable for any harmful outcomes. Second, if the parent provides a tool that is not “inherently" dangerous but could threaten others due to a condition the child has and of which the parent is aware, then he or she is responsible. Finally, if the parent observes a violent behavior and fails to intervene, then he or she is accountable according to the law (818). Reasonable care is thus seen to be more clear-cut than critics acknowledge.

Although jurisdictions with parent responsibility laws have argued that the decline in juvenile offenses is statistically significant, such statistics fail to take into consideration parents who have done everything they could for a child who still commits an offense against law and society. Most parents exercise reasonable care and want their children to do good, not harm. When children, armed with values and knowledge, choose to harm others, then the responsibility for their actions rests squarely upon them.

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