How Free-Range Parenting Works

Is Free-Range Parenting Against the Law?

kids riding bikes kids riding bikes
Utah was the first to pass a "free-range parenting" law, but other states may follow. Ronnie Kaufman/Larry Hirshowitz/Getty Images

In 2018, Utah became the very first state to pass a so-called "free-range parenting" law [source: Whitehurst]. The law amounts to an amendment of the state's current law defining child neglect. Under the new definition, a parent cannot be accused of neglect simply because their minor child engages in certain activities alone, including:

  • walking or biking to school
  • traveling to a store
  • playing outside
  • waiting in a car under safe conditions
  • staying home unattended

As long as the child's "basic needs are met" and he "is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm," this type of independent behavior no longer falls under Utah's definition of neglect, according to the Utah State Legislature.

The Utah law was a big victory for the free-range parenting movement, and other states, including New York and Texas, are considering similar bills [source: Whitehurst]. But until more state legislatures amend their definitions of child neglect, parents who let their kids walk to school or the park alone, or who leave their children unattended even briefly at home or in a vehicle, could be charged with a crime.

One of the difficulties with child neglect cases is that neglect is notoriously difficult to define, and the decision to charge parents with neglect is largely up to the discretion of each state's Child Protective Services (CPS) agency [source: DePanfilis].

In Tennessee, for example, there is no set minimum age at which a child can legally stay home alone. But the Tennessee Juvenile & Family Courts website advises, "Younger children have a greater need for supervision and care than older children. Obviously, young children under age 10 should not be left without supervision at any time. In most cases, older teenage children may be left alone for short periods of time."

Is it "obvious" that children under 10 should never be left alone? Are there not circumstances in which a mature 9-year-old could stay home while a parent works, if there are no other child care options available? In these cases, CPS has the law on its side if it feels like a child was endangered by a lack of adult supervision.

In one high-profile case, Debra Harrell was arrested in 2014 in South Carolina for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play in a nearby park while she finished her shift at McDonald's. Harrell was tossed in jail for a night and the daughter was placed in foster care for more than two weeks [source: McCrory Calarco].

Cases like this highlight the racial and economic disparities in the enforcement of child neglect laws. Harrell is black and poor, precisely the two groups of people who are most likely to be charged with neglect, according to a Brookings Institute study [source: McCrory Calarco]. Harrell isn't a "free-range" parent, per se, but a mom who believed her child would be safe alone at the park while she worked. (Skenazy recognizes the racial disparities in neglect cases and argues that laws like that in Utah will free all parents, free-range or not, to decide for themselves what's best for their children.)

If the free-range parenting movement is going to take off in America, then it will need buy-in from state legislatures, child welfare agencies and regular community members. But as the Utah law shows, the slow process of acceptance may already have begun.

Author's Note: How Free-Range Parenting Works

Spend a few minutes on the phone with Lenore Skenazy and Peter Gray and they'll have you convinced that the best thing you can do for your child is give them directions to the park and tell them to be back home in two hours. As a parent of three young children, I struggle with affording my kids the type of independence and freedom that Skenazy and Gray promote. But even if I can't work up the nerve to let my kid walk 15 minutes home from school (no sidewalks, busy road) or let my 13-year-old ride the public buses alone (first, you'd have to convince her), I'm committed to giving them more chances to do small things by themselves without me hovering or butting in.

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More Great Links


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