Parenting By the Book 1 of 13As parents, we make a thousand decisions a day based on what we think is best for our kids. We research the essential baby products, the most qualified pediatricians, and the best schools. But have you ever stopped to consider the legal rights afforded to you as a parent? Laws affect everything from whether a mom can breastfeed in public to the protections that are legally set in place for a child with special needs. Here are the top 10 laws every parent should know. (While some laws are applicable nationwide, others vary by state, which is important to consider when moving or traveling.)
Editors note: This article does not serve as legal advice.
Federal Laws 2 of 13
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act 3 of 13
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act
What it is: A law that makes it illegal for employers with 15 or more employees to discriminate based on pregnancy, childbirth, or any related medical conditions. This means employers cannot make decisions regarding hiring, firing, employment benefits, work conditions, or leave based on an employee or job applicant's pregnancy. However, the law does not afford you special rights; it only requires that your employer treat you the same as any "similarly disabled" employee and cannot single you out due to your pregnancy.
What you can do: Check with your local state employment agency on the specific coverage in your area before discussing pregnancy-leave options with your employer. Remember that this law doesn't guarantee paid maternity leave; there's currently no U.S. law to offer that.
The Family and Medical Leave Act 4 of 13
The Family and Medical Leave Act
What it is: A law that allows eligible employees to take up to 12 work weeks of unpaid leave without fear of being fired. This leave can be for the birth or adoption of a child, or to care for a child with a serious health condition. The law even covers a person who cares for a child who is not biologically related to them — even if they're not technically their legal guardians. Again, some states have separate (and more generous) family-leave laws. For example, California has a paid family leave law that allows for partial wage replacement to care for a sick child or bond with a new baby for up to six weeks.
What you can do: If your employer is covered under your state's leave law, you may be eligible for additional or paid leave from work. Check with your local state employment agency for more details.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act 5 of 13
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act
What it is: This act currently requires employers to provide a reasonable break time and private space for breastfeeding mothers to pump for up to one year after the child's birth (bathrooms don't count as a "private space"). However, several other changes go into effect in 2014, including required vision and oral care coverage and preventative care such as regular pediatrician visits, vision and hearing screening, developmental assessments, immunizations, and screening and counseling to address obesity. Federal funding for the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) will also be extended for two additional years, providing additional heath care coverage to thousands of uninsured kids and teens up to age 19 who are not eligible for other medical assistance from the government.
What you can do: Discuss with your benefits coordinator the ways in which your health insurance coverage could change when additional reforms go into effect in 2014. Ask what additional services will now be covered and the new limits on what you must pay out-of-pocket each year for those services.
No Child Left Behind 6 of 13
No Child Left Behind
What it is: This much-contested law is controversial due to the increased standardized testing it requires, which many critics feel is now the focus of our education system. However, because it affects your child's education, it's best to be familiar with it. The law requires states to set standards regarding the basic skills every student should achieve. States must reach those standards to receive federal funding; since so many states are experiencing budgetary crises, not meeting NCLB standards is not an option.
What you can do: Talk to your child's teacher about how No Child Left Behind has affected the curriculum, and find out what you can do at home to help your kid achieve the skills required. If you feel areas such as art, music, or physical education aren't offered enough at school due to increased time spent on testing preparation and practice, focus on these areas at home when possible.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) 7 of 13
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
What it is: Gone are the days when children with special needs were shut away or institutionalized, thanks in part to the IDEA. This federal law addresses the educational needs of children with disabilities and regulates how states and public agencies provide early intervention, special education, and related services.
What you can do: If your child's development ever becomes a concern, speak immediately with your pediatrician, who can direct you to the early intervention program in your state. If you already know your child has special needs, work closely with your school administrator and child's teacher to assure your child's educational needs are met. As in every situation, you are your child's best advocate.
State Laws 8 of 13
State Breastfeeding Laws 9 of 13
State Breastfeeding Laws
What they are: Forty-five states, as well as D.C. and the Virgin Islands, have laws legally protecting a nursing mother's right to breastfeed in public. (Idaho, Michigan, Virginia, South Dakota, and West Virginia are the states that don't protect your rights.) The best place to breastfeed? Puerto Rico, which requires malls, airports, and other eligible public places to have an area specifically designed for breastfeeding. (Again, bathrooms don't count!)
What you can do: Know your state's laws; you could have rights beyond your right to breastfeed in public, such as the right to breastfeed openly on any state property or exemption from jury duty while breastfeeding.
State Vaccination Laws 10 of 13
State Vaccination Laws
What they are: All 50 states have immunization requirements set in place for school-aged children, although many states allow for vaccine exemption based on religious, medical, or philosophical reasons.
What you can do: Speak to your pediatrician or school administrator to learn more about the required vaccines and discuss the options available in your area. If you're deciding whether or not to vaccinate, check the CDC's latest recommendations.
Anti-bullying Laws 11 of 13
What they are: In the past decade, state legislators have taken a very proactive approach to addressing bullying in schools. As a result, 49 of the 50 states have some form of anti-bullying legislation. Many also prohibit cyber-bullying, and some require school districts to have bullying policies in place. In most instances, bullies must be reassigned to a different school or even expelled. If your child is ever bullied, it is important to know the responsibilities of the school district and your rights as a parent.
What you can do: Click here for a full analysis of the state laws. If you feel like your child or another is in immediate danger, contact the authorities. Bullying experts advise parents to watch their children closely for trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, sudden disinterest in school, or signs of torn clothing or unexplained bruises.
Car Safety Laws 12 of 13
Car Safety Laws
What they are: Every state has different laws regarding your child's safety in a car and what you as a parent are required to do to guarantee it. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have child-restraint laws, but each state differs in determining when a child can begin wearing a seatbelt instead of being restrained in a car seat or booster seat.
What you can do: Click here to find out your state's law. To assure you are meeting the legal requirements and that your safety seat is properly installed, consider contacting your local fire department and having them install the seat, or searching for a nearby child car seat inspection locator.
Homeschool Laws 13 of 13
What they are: If you decide to homeschool your child, the amount of regulation you will be under differs depending on the state. Some states require no contact from the parents at all, while others require everything from notification to curriculum approval.
What you can do: Find out the level of regulation in your state. Reach out to home school groups in your area for advice and resources — Homeschool.com is a great place to start.