A new law in Utah allows kids to be brought up “free range.” Yes, you read that right. Like the chickens.
In March 2018, Gary Herbert, the governor of Utah, signed the so-called “free-range kids” bill, which went into effect yesterday (May 8). The law re-defines “child neglect” to allow for a more common-sense understanding of the constraints of parental supervision. It will no longer be considered a crime in the state of Utah for parents to let their kids do things like walk to school alone or play outside without supervision. According to state senator Lincoln Fillmore, the main sponsor of the bill, “the [previous] statutory definition of neglect in Utah was broad enough that anyone could say a child playing alone in a park was being neglected.”
The bill has put the controversial parenting method known as “free-range parenting” in the national spotlight. Free-range parenting is generally understood to be the opposite of helicopter parenting, in that it promotes self-sufficiency, independence, and decision-making in young children. The free-range parenting philosophy is thought to be the brain child of the famous American pediatrician Benjamin Spock, who wrote The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. But the modern-day emblem of the movement for free-range parenting is Lenore Skenazy, a writer whom some called “America’s worst mom” in 2008 after writing a column in which she explained why she let her 9-year-old son ride the subway alone.
Skenazy went on to coin the term “free-range kids” and is now running for office in Montgomery, Maryland. She has spent the past few years advocating for common-sense legislation on free-range parenting that would avoid debacles like the case of Danielle and Alexander Meitiv, the Maryland parents who made national headlines in 2015 when they were charged with child neglect for letting their two children (a 10-year-old son and six-year-old daughter) walk home from a park by themselves.
In Utah, the free-range movement seem to have won its first major victory. The so-called “free-range kids” bill is believed to be the first of its kind in the US. It outlines what does and doesn’t constitute neglect, and the relevant passage is reproduced below:
“Neglect” does not include:
(iv) 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, including:
(A) traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling;
(B) traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities;
(C) engaging in outdoor play;
(D) remaining in a vehicle unattended, except under the conditions described in Subsection 76-10-2202(2);
(E) remaining at home unattended; or
(F) engaging in a similar independent activity.
“The fact that we need legislation for what was once considered common sense parenting a generation ago and is considered normal in every other country in the world is what surprises me,” Danielle Meitiv told The New York Times.
But free-range parenting, while it may be fashionable these days, also has its flaws, most notably its racial blind spot. The vast majority of families investigated by child protective services are poor families, particularly poor families of color. What may be a fashionable parenting choice for wealthier families in safe neighborhoods today has always been a necessity for poor families in under-served communities: Mothers who can’t afford childcare may have to leave their kids unsupervised at home while they were at work, and parents with inflexible work schedules and no other means of transportation may need to let their kids take public transportation, or walk or bike alone, to school. As Jessica Calarco writes in The Atlantic, “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.”
Defenders of free-range parenting will argue that the solution is simply more states adopting free-range kids bills, like Utah. And they will tell you that the broad advantages of their method on kids’ well-being outweigh its potential pitfalls. In her original 2008 column—the one that started it all—Skenazy summarizes the fear that lies in the heart of the debate about adopting free-range parenting: “The problem with this everything-is-dangerous outlook is that over-protectiveness is a danger in and of itself. A child who thinks he can’t do anything on his own eventually can’t.”
This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation. The author’s views are not necessarily those of the Bernard van Leer Foundation.