Kids, run along now. Parents, let them run along now. They’ve got the law on their side.
In one state, at least.
In news that synthesizes just how low our parental helicopters are flying, the governor of Utah signed a “free-range parenting” bill in March. Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the bill frees parents from panicking that they’ll be charged with child neglect for letting their competent kids walk home alone from the convenience store.
Sponsored by state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, a self-described “free-range parent,” the law allows children to “walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended,” without supervision, as long as their basic needs are met and they show the maturity to avoid unreasonable risk of harm.
That cacophony of boisterous voices you hear is every baby boomer on Earth recalling a childhood that required a mandatory exit from the house in the morning with a return when the sun went down.
But somewhere between then and now, parents got scared.
I’ve written many times in this column that media, a profession that often feeds on the rarest news, can create a sense that perceived risks are far more threatening than they are. So, your kid asks to go to the park and you think “stranger abduction” and say no, when such horrors are incredibly unlikely.
Meanwhile, anxiety and depression, and obesity and type 2 diabetes (due in part to sedentary lifestyles) are real villains creeping into their bedrooms.
Let’s hope the pendulum is swinging back. Allowing our kids to test the waters of independence at age-appropriate junctures is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.
“It took 10 years, but I got a law,” said a very pleased Lenore Skenazy, a writer who lives in New York. Ten years go, Skenazy allowed her then-9-year-old son to find his way home on his own from a department store, after he begged her to let him. She gave him a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill and several quarters. He came home bursting with pride, as was she (although she wasn’t surprised with the outcome).
After writing about the experience, Skenazy learned that her decision was not a popular one. “Half the people I told want to turn me in for child abuse,” she said.
“It’s completely distorted,” she said. “They’re deliberately creating a horrible society where people are terrified of their neighbors, where they kidnap their own children so they don’t go outside.”
In 2010, she wrote a book, “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry),” and started a nonprofit, letgrow.org, for which she blogs regularly.
The site encourages schools and parents to work together to pinpoint reasonable adventures for their children and set them free to enjoy them.
“Maybe it’s to ride their bike to school, or to the library, which is closer,” Skenazy said. “Or to go to the store with your sister. It’s just this little push. When the kid comes back flush with excitement, the parent bursts with joy. They see their kid as way more competent, savvy and blossoming than they realized.”
She predicts that in 10 more years, “all schools will be doing this, because they recognize that, for parents, it’s a hard decision to make individually, but if everyone in the class is doing it, it normalizes it.”
Skenazy’s 9-year-old is 20 now. He just spent a semester in Ghana. He’s back, and safe.
Thanks, Utah. One state down. Forty-nine to go.