As this relatively new child-rearing philosophy is codified into law, it’s a good time to reflect on the consequences of it. Free-range parenting is certainly a warranted corrective to the ever-anxious helicopter parents, but it also, in ways not often fully appreciated, benefits some families more than others. Utah’s new law, and the broader free-range parenting movement, are susceptible to a problem of interpretation: What counts as “free-range parenting” and what counts as “neglect” are in the eye of the beholder—and race and class often figure heavily into such distinctions.
For some parents—poor and working-class parents, and especially poor and working-class parents of color—free-range parenting has long been a necessity, even if it didn’t previously get the virtuous-sounding label it has today. In the ’90s, the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein studied single working mothers in Chicago, Boston, San Antonio, and Charleston, South Carolina. Those mothers often had no choice but to leave their kids at home, and they were certainly not the first to do so.
When children in poor and working-class families stay home or walk to school alone, their parents face considerable risks.