Below is the abstract for “Children at Work, Parental Rights– and Rhetoric” available for download on SSRN.

Child labor protections are under attack in multiple states. The attempted rollback of these protections is occurring at a time of growing socioeconomic inequality, in which child labor violations—for which migrant children are at particular risk—have increased significantly. This symposium essay focuses on one rationale used in a number of states to justify the reduction of children’s labor protections: parental rights.

We argue that the rhetoric of parental rights is being invoked in today’s legislative battles over child labor protections to give politicians political cover for reforms that benefit businesses, rather than children or their families. Indeed, as we show in other work, the rationale of protecting parental rights is inconsistently asserted: Many of the states justifying the rollback of labor restrictions on children based on this rationale have also passed legislative bans overriding parental rights in the context of gender-affirming care, for example. In using the rhetoric of parental rights, we contend, such states are co-opting the underlying, constitutionally-respected concept to serve other ends. In fact, strong reasons grounded in children’s future economic wellbeing still support continued restrictions on child labor.

Part I demonstrates that appeals to parental rights have a long history in child labor law. Part II turns to the recent attacks on child labor protections in the name of parental rights. Part III concludes by considering ways to counter the new rhetoric of parental rights and its impact on child labor laws.


Naomi R. Cahn

University of Virginia School of Law

Naomi Cahn is an expert in family law, trusts and estates, feminist jurisprudence, reproductive technology, and aging and the law. Prior to joining the University of Virginia faculty in 2020, she taught at George Washington Law School, where she twice served as associate dean. She is the co-director of UVA Law’s Family Law Center.

Maxine Eichner

University of North Carolina School of Law

Maxine Eichner writes on issues at the intersection of law and political theory, focusing particularly on family relationships, social welfare law and policy; feminist theory; sexuality; and the relationship of the family, the workplace, and market forces.

Mary Ziegler

University of California Davis School of Law

Mary Ziegler is the Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at UC Davis School of Law. She is an expert on the law, history, and politics of reproduction, health care, and conservatism in the United States from 1945 to the present.