Parental authority is a legal concept that dates back to the first systems of written law. In Ancient Rome, fathers had the right of vitae et necis, or quite literal “life and death” over any children. Throughout history, parental authority has granted parents the rights to kill, beat, forcibly marry, or disinherit their children, and commit their children to insane asylums or religious orders. Today, parental authority includes a great deal more responsibilities and far fewer direct rights, though this is typically a result of both social and economic change in regards to the parent-child relationship.
Human babies are essentially defenseless; for several years, they need attentive care and feeding in order to have much hope of survival. Parental authority often functions as the arm of the law reaching into the family domain; by making parents legally responsible for both the basic care and sometimes behavior of children, the state aims to create healthy, lawful adult citizens. Thus, most of the laws regarding parental authority in the modern world try to ensure both the safety of children and the instillation of legal understanding in the family unit.
Generally, parents have the responsibility to ensure that children are fed, clothed, protected from abuse, and sheltered. Parents who ignore these responsibilities can sometimes end up losing children to governmental custody, which then assumes the right of parental authority. This is an area of law which has developed tremendously since the turn of the 20th century and the implementation of child labor laws during the Industrial Revolution; until these relatively recent years, it was the general governmental policy worldwide to stay out of family matters, including domestic abuse.
In addition to meeting basic needs, parents are also sometimes responsible for the legal behavior of children. If a child is kept out of school by a legally responsible parent, for instance, it is usually the parents who are liable for the truancy. In some regions, parents are held responsible if an underage child is making or selling illegal drugs, or is permitted to drink alcohol. Those against wide governmental rule argue that these laws are the attempts of an over-powerful government to increase power over the family unit; supporters suggest that child protective and parental authority laws help prevent and uncover abuse and neglect.
Parental authority is often an issue in divorce or delegation of parental powers. Parents may be required to divide authority and responsibilities in custody agreements, such one parent agreeing to provide shelter for the children while the other provides financial maintenance. In cases where parents must temporarily leave children, such as for military duty, some regions also allow authority to temporarily be delegated to another party, such as a spouse who is not a biological parent, a grandparent, or another close relative.