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What are the Legal Rights of Children?

Children, typically anyone under 18 years of age, occupy a strange space in the legal world. On the one hand, they do not have the full capacity to make decisions that adults do, and therefore do not have all the same rights as adults. On the other, their diminished capabilities make them vulnerable and in need of special protection. The fact that children grow at different rates means that no one blanket set of rights can fit the needs of every child. Nevertheless, children's rights can be split into three general categories: those that every child has, those that no child has, and those that change over time.

Basic Rights for Every Child

Some rights are common for every child. These include the right to a safe environment, good nutrition, healthcare, and education. A child's need for safety even trumps the parents' rights to care for their child, and allows the state to take the children away from their parents if the parents are not meeting the child's basic needs.

Children also have some constitutional rights. Specifically, they have the a 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. Laws relating to special education are an effort to accommodate children with disabilities and ensure that they receive the same education as their peers. Children are entitled to due process, which includes notice and a hearing, before any of their basic rights are taken away by the government.

Rights that Children Do Not Have

Children are not allowed to vote, hold property, consent to medical treatment, to sue or be sued, or to enter into certain types of contracts. In order to do these things (if they are permitted at all) the child must have a parent act on their behalf.

Rights that Change over Time

Some rights change over time, depending on the age of the child. 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 has 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.

Teenagers tend to have more rights than younger children. Teenagers may work, although the exact age at which a child can begin working and the hours the child may work vary by state. Older children also tend to get more autonomy in the criminal justice system than younger delinquents. Finally, some states allow children to emancipate themselves from their parents' care after they reach a certain age.

For more information on students' rights, see FindLaw's Education section. The Juvenile Justice section has more information on youthful offenders.

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