Holding Parents Responsible for Their Child’s Bullying

Holding Parents Responsible for Their Child’s Bullying Cyberbullying Research Center

Without a doubt, parents have a duty to do their part to ensure that their kids do not bully others.  They need to regularly remind their kids about the importance of treating others the way they would want to be treated.  They should talk about how some things we might do or say to someone that seem funny at the time are actually pretty hurtful.  When it comes to preventing cyberbullying, parents need to regularly check in on the online behaviors of their kids.  Problematic behaviors need to be addressed with reasonable and appropriate discipline.  In general, parents need to instill in their children an ethic that includes respecting others and always acting and interacting with integrity, whether online or off.  And they can do that in a caring and authoritative manner that encourages emotional connectedness yet demands respect and accountability. Indeed, research has shown a positive parent-child relationship makes it less likely that youth will engage in bullying behaviors as they do not want to risk damaging the valued bond.

But if parents fail to take these steps and their child bullies others, should the parents themselves be held criminally responsible?

Latest Attempt at Accountability

An ordinance approved last month by the Monona, Wisconsin, Common Council allows parents of children who bully to be fined $114.  The city appears to be the first in the country to pass such a measure.  The Council also amended its ordinances to incorporate existing state criminal statutes that prohibit disorderly conduct, unlawful use of a telephone or computerized communication systems, and harassment.  All of this sends a clear message to citizens that harassment in all of its forms is not welcome within the city limits.

Last fall I wrote about a growing movement among municipalities to criminalize cyberbullying locally by enacting ordinances.  As occurred in Monona, many times city ordinances simply mirror existing state laws. As I wrote back then, there are a few reasons for why this move might make sense. It allows a city attorney to pursue charges against an individual even when the county-level district attorney is unwilling.  It also allows for the cases to be handled in a municipal court (which Monona does have–many cities do not), rather than the state circuit court system.  This has the added effect (for better or worse) of shielding violators from the public shame of being eternally listed on Wisconsin’s Consolidated Court Automation Program website (CCAP) for all to see.

History and Theory Behind Parental Liability Laws

Parental liability laws hold parents accountable, and financially liable, for the behavior of their children when it is deemed that the parents were negligent in their obligation to provide proper parental care and supervision. In theory, these laws make a lot of sense: the idea is to compel parents to make sure their kids aren’t behaving in a reckless or delinquent manner. School law states that educators can be held liable for damages when they are found to have been deliberately indifferent to harassment that happens at schools. Maybe it is appropriate to hold parents to the same standard.  Parents who are not adequately “parenting” ought to be punished right along with their kids, right?  Well, in practice it is much more complicated than that.

States have long had various laws on the books that can be used to hold adults responsible for the actions of youth (for a detailed history, see this article).  In 1903, Colorado was the first state to make it a crime to “contribute to the delinquency of a minor.”  California law generally requires parents to “exercise reasonable care, supervision, protection, and control over their children.”  Parents who fail in this mandate could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and sentenced to jail. Massachusetts law states that “a parent is under a duty to exercise reasonable care to prevent his minor child from inflicting injury, intentionally or negligently, on others.”  In fact, some have suggested that parental responsibility laws can be traced back to 1646 when Massachusetts enacted its Stubborn Child Law which noted that parents can be fined if their child is caught stealing.  Of course the same law also proclaimed that “stubborn and rebellious” sons who do not obey their parents “shall be put to death.”

Other Possible Causes of, and Solutions to, the Problem

A number of years ago I was involved in evaluating a truancy reduction initiative in three elementary schools in Michigan.  One element of the program was to hold parents accountable if their elementary-aged children did not attend school.  For students younger than 12-years-old whose parents did not cooperate with school officials, a warrant was sought for parental prosecution under the state’s compulsory attendance law.  The key phrase here was that the parents targeted were uncooperative (and indignant).  Only 3 parents out of the nearly 300 families involved in the program fell into this category.  Most were just looking for help to address a relatively simple problem that contributed to the absenteeism, like providing an alarm clock or transportation to school.

I think the same can be said when it comes to bullying. Most often when parents learn about the bullying behaviors of their children they will take the necessary steps to ensure that such behaviors do not continue.  In some cases they just don’t know what to do and with a little guidance they will be fine. (For recommendations on how to respond to cyberbullying, see our suggestions.)  In very rare cases, a few parents simply do not recognize the bullying behavior of their children as hurtful, or worse they may even encourage it.  Or parents completely ignore what their kids are doing online, even after being made aware of possible problems. Presumably, these are the types of parents that parental responsibility laws are directed toward.

One problem I see with this approach is that it is also likely to have a result that is opposite of that which was intended.  We know that the quality of the parent-child relationship is integral in preventing a whole host of inappropriate behaviors.  The concern is that threatening to punish a parent for the behavior of the child may serve to further weaken this relationship.  Parent and child are pitted against one another when the child misbehaves: “Because of what you did I have to pay $114!”  Furthermore, anyone who has a child of their own or who has worked with youth in a professional capacity (I fall in both camps) knows that even the best-intentioned guardian can run into an obstinate child who refuses to follow any instructions.  It would be inappropriate to hold parents responsible in situations where it is clear that the parent is doing everything they can to try to remedy the behavior.  These laws are really intended to handle the opposite – when parents are doing very little to respond.  And again, I feel like this happens very rarely.

Research Lacking

Unfortunately there has not been any evaluation research done to assess the effectiveness of parental liability statutes so we really do not know what kind of effect they will have.  Dr. Eve Brank, who is a professor of law and psychology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, has studied parental responsibility laws in depth and told me “it’s impossible to speak about whether they are a good tool or not. We know that parents certainly play an important role in raising their children, but we do not know the effect of imposing legal sanctions on them when their children are involved in illegal behavior.” Indeed, in the project I referred to earlier that targeted elementary absenteeism in Michigan, we were unable to follow the students long enough to determine if the threat of parental prosecution actually resulted in better attendance.  So we frankly just don’t know if holding parents criminally or financially responsible for the behavior of their kids will result in reduced bullying.

Critics have argued that this is simply another way to limit free speech and that the parents of outspoken youth will be punished for the protected speech of their kids.  If a child speaks up about his or her moral objections to homosexuality, for example, it could be construed as bullying and therefore could invoke punishment for the child and now the parent as well.  Even though the Monona ordinance clearly states that it does not apply to any “constitutionally protected activity or speech,” there is admittedly ambiguity when it comes to defining an incident as bullying, especially when it involves contentious subjects.  As adults (parents and others), it is our responsibility to teach teens to disagree, and even debate, in a civil manner.  So if you disagree with my thoughts here, feel free to sound off.  But please keep it respectful–your kids could be watching!


  1. As you stated, focusing on educating children how to conduct themselves constructively is a key preventative measure, but not all kids have that parenting structure at home. Not sure that holding parents liable works in all situations, but it does assign accountability – in any case of bullying, that’s important.

    • I also think it is generally a good idea however, I also see many situations where parents just don’t know what to do anymore. They have tried everything they know how to do and holding them responsible for their child’s bad behavior won’t help.

  2. The fact that conflict could arise with the relationship between the parent and the child is a very good point that is made, however I think with the awareness of this new ordinance in place, hopefully it could potentially break down some barriers and open up lines of communication. In my opinion this ordinance is also an opportunity for parents and kids to learn about more bullying/cyber bullying so that they understand the consequences of this ordinance as well as what bullying does to another person.

    As I say to parents in many situations, it is time to start a conversation before you have a ‘confrontation.’ This ordinance is opening the door, step in and start chatting — You never know if your child is silently suffering or is a bully themselves.

  3. As a mother myself, I am online a few times a week to check my emails, keep in contact with friends and family, and, in rare cases, I get to watch a few videos on YouTube for entertainment. Between work, college, and raising a very small child, I still managed to get bullied online regardless if I’m online all the time or once a week. This bullying was usually by people who are way too young to be online without parental supervision to the people who are old enough to know better but don’t bother using good judgment. Basically the bullying on me was for laughs and jokes while I found a comment left by one of my bullies that said “yea, my mom’s not home so I’m gonna harass you and call the police on you and get your (bleep) in crap”. I found that in the bullying on me case, none of the parents of the kids harassing me were around to know anything about what they were doing. The kids went as far as to hide what they were doing and even lied about what they were actually doing. I even got in contact with one of the bullies’ parent and his dad refused to believe the YouTube videos of vulger behavior, swearing, and even racist things his kid said on live webcam. His parent said he had every right to say all that garbage, illegally spread stranger’s personal information, and it wasn’t wrong for his kid to do it either. I was appaulled that there are people like that, who just refuse to acknolege they care about their kids and what their child(ren) are doing online.

  4. #1 biggest parental influence: modeling the behavior.

    Adult cyber-harassment. Do you do it? Do you use your technological devices to cause harm and humiliation to other people, however unintentionally?

    Check yourself. If you’re doing it, what are you teaching your children?

    Do you track others by using online commercial operators who sell information?
    Do you Google your co-workers, family and friends, to see if they’ve got a mugshot? Do you pass it around and share it electronically, when you find something?
    Do you openly laugh, mock, criticize others’ photographs, websites, Facebook entries? In front of your children?
    Have you ever intentionally humiliated someone on the internet, feeling they deserve it?
    Have you ever posted something anonymously, intended to insult, ridicule, embarrass?
    Have you ever engaged in retaliatory vindictive behavior on-line, with hostile intent? An ex-spouse, his new girlfriend, a co-worker, a family member.

  5. It seems to me that the issues in the laws that hold parents
    accountable for their children’s online actions are similar to the “social host
    liability” laws in the alcohol and substance abuse field. In New York State parents are responsible for
    what goes on in their homes, whether they are there or not. So, for example, if parents are away and
    there is a teen party that results in a tragedy due to underaged drinking, the
    parents can be charged and/or be sued.
    Unfortunately, similar to cyberbullying laws, these laws are made for
    the few parents who are irresponsible.
    As has been pointed out, most parents are doing the best they can to
    raise productive, responsible, emotionally literate, independent young
    people. Due to the ever evolving nature
    of online features and possibilities, ongoing parent (adult) education is
    essential for parents to be informed and up to date.

  6. I agree with your thoughts that some people simply do not recognize bullying behavior as harmful and this is part of the problem. Parents may be encouraging the bullying behavior, for their children to stand up for themselves by picking on others instead of reporting it- well now it seems those parents will be responsible for encouraging harmful behavior. Although the laws might seem to be directed at this type of parent or those that simply ignore what their children are doing online, everyone will be responsible and held to the same standards. As a parent, I would be leary of letting my kids go online at all because unless you sit next to them 100% of the time, it’s impossible to track every move they make online.

    • from past experiences with parents of bullies most of the time they are aware or been told their kids are bullies and physically abusive to other kids, the parents just brush it off. Irresponsible parents…

      • I think for the most part you are correct. But, I also feel that those impending the law (s) have a difficult task at hand: defining bullying. There sometimes is a fine line between free speech and harassment (as we all have seen in the news for the past few years). How are they going to define it? Who is going to define it? What are they going to do about educating parents, teachers, children once they DO define bullying?

        I do like how the article stated that the law would protect the parents who cam prove they've done everything they can. But this again arises important questions such add how do they prove they've tried everything and how do they know when one is simply lying. In my opinion, this law would be great for blatant cases and irresponsible parents. Other than that, good luck.

    • Nova this article is more geared towards online cyber bullying. It’s simply stating the fact that’s bullying occurs all places but at home when as parents can do more by supervision of what our kids are doing online

  7. great article and effective stuff. According to the Georgia Court of Appeals Parents should also be held liable for cyber bullying by their kids, in my point of view they said very right, if we have take a look on whole case covered by theonespy

  8. Absolutely agree. Since parents are responsible of the behavior of their kids, they should also hold responsibility regarding all online actions, including cyber bullying.

  9. Although parents might not always be the reason their child becomes a bully, it is their responsibilities to make them stop! Bullying can hurt someone so much and it could take years for the bullied people to build up their confidence again.

    • Koleman hate and love is taught we are not born with it. If you think you are responsible enough to have kids you are responsible enough to be accountable for their actions

  10. I think parents should be charged with their children's cyber-bullying. Yeah, I know its all the kid's doing, but, parents are in charge of their kids until they are eighteen, or graduate. Then they are adults now. To me, when parents say "Oh, I had no idea my kid was 'Cyber-Bullying'." I think of this.
    A toddler walks out of the room where it's parents/guardians are. It gets into something poisonous, lets say bleach.
    It drinks the bleach, the parents don't know it drank bleach because they are in the other room doing something else.
    The toddler ends up dead because its been poisoned. BUT, the parents say "I didn't know my kid snuck off and drank bleach."
    Seem familliar? Parents are responsible, period.

  11. Honestly I think that the child should get fined but obviously depending on their age they wont be able to pay it off so they should come up with something that the kid has to do as a punishment. People are saying that the parents should be watching their kids but what if they work all the time always on business trips and stuff like that. Besides the kid should be old enough to watch themselves I mean they are old enough to have a cell phone. Seriously though grow up one day the bully will be bullied and they will see how it feels. They will finally feel sorry for all of the people that committed suicide because those people that got bullied will be telling the bully the same thing.

  12. yes that is right because if their kids are bullying people sometimes the person that is getting bullied can comet suicide and that should not be happening that is not right

  13. I believe the real issue comes down to accountability and "how" to hold individuals accountable. The basic thought is that children learn their behavior from somewhere usually Stemming from their home environment. By imposing a fine the hope is to bring awareness; however, realistically parents maybe unaware of how their behavior or what words most impact their children. Imposing fines only provides financial discomfort for those struggling and maybe a relief for affluent families sweeping it "under the rug."
    It saddens me that greater support is not required for families and follow up is null and void. Essentially, a child could bully peers in school and get in trouble. At times the confrontation brings correction. BUT if the problem were to escalate resulting into expulsion, a family can simply relocate and never confront the issue. There is no follow up and accountability to the parents and the greatest damage is done to the child by denying them the help and support they need. Children either act what they learn or react because they are hurt.
    If our children are bullying, name calling, hitting and threatening others and stating they will kill peers, do we really want to push them out of one community so they can floundering around another unsuspectingly? Or… should we be surrounding the family with love, support, additional resources and accountability to make sure the root of the problem changes or is healed. Perhaps if we lived in community and stopped promoting our own individual comfort there would be less shootings.

  14. I wish we had these laws in Australia, the number of children committing suicide as a result of cyber bullying in our country, is fast getting out of control.

  15. I do agree that teenagers need to learn how to be independent and have their own opinions. While parents should encourage this, I do believe that they should still keep an eye on their teen online, in order to protect them from cyberbullying and other online dangers.

  16. I am doing a report about who is most responsible for preventing bullying parents, students or school staff and this really helped!!!!!!!! 🙂

  17. The buzzing question worldwide is, should parents be responsible for their child(ren) behaviors? And should they be punished? Well let’s think about this… when parents are out parting and doing their thing, I think it is their fault if their child gets in trouble with the law. Don’t you think? But that can work the other way, parents that care about their children and take the time of day to correct them, and try to make them better as a human, are not the ones that should be punished for their child(ren) behaviors, because it is not fair for the parent if their child is just stubborn and doesn’t want to listen. And in that case, the kid(s) should be punished. Some kids, kids that have been in and out of foster homes, don’t know what is right and what is wrong, so in that case… is that the children’s fault? Or is it the blood parent’s fault? Well… it would definitely be the blood parents’ fault, I say this because, if the blood parents would have cared for their children and tried to make them successful, the children would be in foster care and worrying about when their next meal is.
    Some children like to think, that if they misbehave, they wouldn’t get in trouble and the blame would go to their parents… But that is NOT fair to the parents. Image yourself as a parent, trying to remind your child(ren) to go down the right path so they end up having amazing jobs and making their parents proud, and all the help you are trying to give your child(ren)… they just throw it in your face and mess up their whole life… I know that that would be stressful and very pitiful.
    So the next time you decide to misbehave, think about the consequences your parents would have to be charged just because you wanted to be selfish and make bad decisions.

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