One of my neighbors’ kids was playing near my home and damaged my property. Are the parents supposed to pay for it?

The Letter of the Law

Before we get to the parents, let’s discuss the child. The Mishnah explains that the law skews in favor of children: An adult who injures or damages a child is liable, but a child who caused damage or hurt to others is exempt.1 As such, a child who is not yet bar or bat mitzvah is exempt from paying damages.2

Even once the child grows up, there is no obligation to go back and to pay for the damages caused in childhood. The individual lacked daat (very loosely translated as “intellectual maturity”) when the incident occurred and could not have been expected to have used better judgement.3

Nevertheless, as part of “repentance for one’s soul,”4 he should attempt to make amends and compensate5 for damages caused during childhood.6 Even though he is technically off the hook, his adverse actions can affect his spiritual sensitivity.7

That said, the victim is encouraged to not be exacting on the penitent adult, and to respond with forgiveness to conciliatory attempts made.8

Additionally, when damages occurs, the parents and the rabbinical court are obliged to discipline and guide the child so that he does not become accustomed to damaging other people’s property.9

What About Parents?

Strictly speaking, according to halachah, the parents, too, would usually not be responsible for damages their child caused. After all, if they were responsible, the Mishnah would not refer to the children as having an advantage over others. That said, the parents always have the option to pay, and ideally that is what they should do.

Furthermore, if the damages took place due to the gross negligence of the parents, or the parents literally placed the child in a position where the child was likely to cause damages, then the parents may be obligated to pay, as would any adult who acted in such an irresponsible way.10

Additionally, there are instances (such as when damage is done to library books, to school property, or during organized activities) when the parents would be liable due to contracts signed.

Civil Law

Many states and countries have laws regarding the responsibilities of the parents or guardians for damage done by minors. Thus, although the parents may be exempt by Torah law, they can still be held liable in civil court.

On the flip side, although according to civil law, the child isn’t ordinarily responsible until 18, according to Halachah, already at twelve or thirteen, the child is considered an adult and are responsible for their own actions.

In the event that you are on the receiving end of damage from a minor and wish to sue the parents, even though the civil law may favor you, as Jews, we are generally enjoined to pursue matters only in Jewish court11 even though we know going in that we may not come out on top.