Utah seeks to legalize free-range parenting

I don’t want to get too far down in the weeds here, but do you recall the stories of some families we covered here a few years ago including the Meitiv family of Maryland or Lenore Skenazy? What they had in common was having run into trouble with Child Protective Services for their “abusive” or at least “neglectful” treatment of their children. This generally came in the form of allowing the child to walk, unsupervised, to their home from school, a local park, the basketball court or some other focus of childhood activity. These legal battles led Skenazy to write the book, Free-Range Kids.

Now the entire concept of “free-range parenting” may be making its way into our system of laws, at least in Utah. The state is looking at new legislation which would protect parents who don’t hover in helicopter mode over their children every waking moment of the day. (WaPo)

Gov. Gary R. Herbert (R) signed the “free-range parenting” bill into law earlier this month after it passed unanimously in both chambers of Utah’s legislature. It’s believed to be the first such law in the United States, according to Skenazy.

The measure, sponsored by Utah state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore (R), exempts from the definition of child neglect “permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities …”

Those activities include letting children walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended.” The law does not say what the “sufficient age” is.

With the usual warning that we may be briefly venturing into Get Off My Lawn territory, I had some experience with the concept of free-range parenting back when I was growing up. Except it was just called “parenting” back then. We lived out in the country and before the age of ten I was already allowed to roam miles away from our house during the day when there was no school. Once I had a banana bike, all bets were off. I could be found a couple of towns over riding around when I was 12 or so. Of course, back in those days, my mom would chase you out of the house with a broom if you were just moping around inside when the sun was out.

This Utah law seems like a step in the right direction, particularly because some of the language is pretty vague. No two kids are alike and the security requirements in a rural, farming area, a tidy suburb or an inner city housing development will all be different. Parents need to know their own children and be able to evaluate their environment to determine how much freedom they can give them. But with that in mind, every time a ten-year-old is seen walking down the sidewalk alone and not in any evident state of distress, you don’t need to be calling Child Protective Services.

This doesn’t mean that we should turn a blind eye to obvious cases of actual abuse and neglect by any means. There are some terrible parents out there. But there are also families who don’t mind allowing their youngsters to walk five blocks to the park and back if they’ve previously demonstrated enough responsibility to merit that kind of trust. Good luck to Utah. We could use a bit less Big Brother in the childrearing department.