Child and parenting laws in the U.S.

In the United States, there are laws that explain parents’ rights and responsibilities towards their children. These laws can vary in each state, county, and city. Learn about important laws all parents should know.

Providing for child 

Parents and caregivers are legally responsible for providing for their children until they become adults. In most states, children legally become adults at 18 years old. 

Parents are responsible for attending to their child’s basic needs, including: 

  • Food, clothing, and housing
  • Physical and mental health care
  • Public or private education
  • Financial support 
  • Supervision
  • Protection

Both parents are required to support their children regardless of marital status. Parents who are divorced may be required to provide child support payments depending on which parent has child custody.

If you are having trouble providing for your child, there are organizations that can help you pay for living expenses and find childcare.  

Abuse and neglect

All states have laws protecting children from four main types of maltreatment. 

  • Physical abuse is any act that results in a serious physical injury, such as hitting, punching, kicking, and throwing
  • Emotional abuse is any acts causing emotional harm, such as insulting, making fun of, shaming, and threatening
  • Sexual abuse is any forced sexual activity, inappropriate touching, or showing inappropriate photos or videos  
  • Neglect is failure to provide basic necessities, including food, shelter,  medical care, education, and supervision 

Parents who have substance abuse problems can be charged with child abuse and neglect in certain situations. Exposing children to illegal drug activity is also a crime in many states. 

Each state legally requires certain people to report child abuse or neglect to the police and child welfare agencies. This can be if they know or suspect it. These mandatory reporters include social workers, health care providers, mental health professionals, teachers, school staff, child care providers, and law enforcement officers. 18 states require everyone to report child abuse and neglect.  

If you know a child experiencing abuse, contact local child protective services, Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline, or National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Call 911 if they are in immediate and serious danger. In most states, you can report child abuse anonymously. Your identity will not be shared with the suspected abuser.

Leaving a child home alone

Many state laws consider leaving a young child unsupervised as neglect especially when it puts them at risk of harm or danger. Although, most states do not have laws identifying a minimum age for leaving a child home alone.

It is important to think about your child’s needs, age, physical health, and emotional well-being before deciding to leave them at home alone. You should also consider the amount of time you will be gone and the home environment your child will be left in. 

If you or your child does not feel safe being left home alone, consider your childcare options

School

If you are a parent of a school-aged child, you have different requirements and rights.

Parents are legally required to have their children go to school. This can include public or private schools as well as home school programs. State laws vary on what age children are required to start school and when they can drop out. Parents are required to make sure their children attend school regularly and follow school rules of conduct. 

Parents have the right to ask for changes to their child’s school classes and activities based on their child’s needs. Parents can choose to opt their children out of certain classes and standardized testing. Schools have to make reasonable accommodations to make sure certain people have an equal opportunity to succeed in school. This includes students with different language skills, disabilities, religions, and gender identities.

Parents have the right to ask for help with their child’s safety in school. Schools must tell parents if their child is being bullied or bullying other students. Parents can also report bullying and discrimination to school staff. Schools must respond to these reports and make an effort to improve the safety of students.

Learn more about sending your child to school in the USA.

Other important laws

Parents are responsible for supervising teenage drivers especially when they have a learner’s permit.  

Parents cannot force their children to marry against their will. However, parents can allow their children to marry at the age of 16-17 if state law requires parental permission for those under 18.  

Tips on raising children new to the USA

Being a parent is not always easy. It can be especially hard for families who are adjusting to a new country. Immigrant parents and children face many unique challenges.

Talk to your child about your feelings and experiences adjusting to American culture. It’s okay if your child seems to adapt more quickly to American culture than you. Talk about ways you both can become involved in your local community together. Practice learning English with your child and participate in community activities together.

Offer your child opportunities to stay connected to your culture. Have conversations in your native language. Read books and watch films in your native language. Cook traditional recipes together. Share your favorite traditions from your home country. Join community groups for people from your home country.

Reach out to families, friends, and professionals for support. If you are having problems with your child, it can be helpful to reach out for help. Talk with your child, family members, friends, and service providers to find solutions that work. Learn about finding mental health services.

Find help

Find more resources for parents and teens who are new to the USA. 

Resource
Offers
A guide for immigrant parents raising children in the U.S. Available in English, Arabic, Spanish, Nepali, and Somali.
Local child care resources, health, and social services, and financial assistance for each state. 
Resources for immigrant and refugee families. 
Guide for creating a family emergency and parenting plan. 
Emotional support over the phone and parenting resources online. 
Emotional support for teens looking for help and online resources for teens, parents, and caregivers.   
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Local community resources, including crisis & emergency, food, housing, and health. 
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The information on this page comes from trusted sources, including USA.gov and childwelfare.gov. We aim to offer information in plain language that is easy to understand and updated regularly. This page is for guidance. USAHello does not give legal advice, nor are any of our materials intended to be taken as legal advice.