What are the Legal Rights of Children?
Children, or minors, do not have the full legal capacity of adults. Typically, minors aren’t granted the rights of adults until they reach the age of 18, although this varies from state to state. Because children are still developing, both physically and mentally, they aren’t considered capable of handling the same rights as mature adults. However, children do have some inherent legal rights as soon as they are born, and they obtain some additional rights as they grow.
Basic Rights for Every Child
Although children grow and mature at different rates, there are some rights that every child is born with. Children are entitled to a safe environment, good nutrition, healthcare, and education. Although parents have the right to raise their children as they see fit, if a child is not safe, the state will remove the children from their home. Parents are required to meet the child's basic needs.
Minors also have rights under the U.S. Constitution. Specifically, they have the right to equal protection, which means that every child is entitled to the same treatment at the hands of authority regardless of race, gender, disability, or religion. Children are also entitled to due process, which includes notice and a hearing, before any of their basic rights are taken away by the government.
Children with disabilities also have rights under the federal Disabilities Education Act. The Disabilities Education Act provides children in need of special education with special accommodations to ensure they receive the same education as their peers.
Rights that Children Can Obtain as They Grow
Some rights are obtained as the child grows, depending on his or her age and level of maturity. For example, children have a limited right to free speech. In many instances, children are encouraged to form opinions and freely speak their mind. However, schools may limit the child's speech if they feel it could harm other students. This rule can have strikingly different applications for student bodies of different ages. For example, a student painting featuring nudity might be inappropriate in middle school, but cutting edge art in high school. For more information on students' rights, see FindLaw's Education section.
Teenagers tend to have more rights than younger children. Teenagers may work, although the exact age at which a minor can begin working and the hours he or she may work will vary by state. The Fair Labor Standards Act and state labor laws regulate the employment of minors. For general guidelines, see Findlaw's Hiring Minors article.
In the criminal justice system, older children receive more autonomy than younger delinquents. Findlaw's Juvenile Justice section has more information on youthful offenders.
Common Rights that Children Do Not Have
Children are not allowed to vote, hold property, consent to medical treatment, sue or be sued, or enter into certain types of contracts. In some cases, a child is able to do these things but must have a parent or legal guardian act on his or her behalf.