Last week, Utah was the first state to pass a ‘free-range parenting’ law, which states that parents cannot be arrested for permitting their child to be independent. The law outlines what constitutes child abuse and what does not. It states that if a child is adequately cared for, permitting the child to do age-appropriate independent activities such as playing in the park alone or with other children or going to a nearby convenience store by themself, is well within the parents’ discretion. The fact that we have to pass a law explaining normal, healthy childhood activities signifies how out of touch with common sense parenting practices our country has become. Before the passage of this law, the authorities could be called if a child was seen alone, and parents could be charged with negligence, potentially escalating to Child Protective Services getting involved and then resulting in the removal of their children from the household. Parents should not be actively involved in all aspects of their child’s life, and children should be increasingly independent as they grow and mature. Actively prohibiting children from being independent — which the necessitation of this law indicates is the case — means that they will be increasingly dependent on their parents in young adulthood. We fail children when we do not encourage them to be independent or to have basic responsibilities. We should be striving to raise children to become successful adults, independent of their parents.
The law raises some interesting questions about what constitutes abuse. Supporters of the law argue that authorities can now focus on more serious cases of abuse and will not have to be bothered with ‘nuisance calls,’ which were usually made against well-meaning parents allowing their children a small dose of independence. Although I fully support the bill, the authors of the bill don’t explain how to differentiate a child with some independence from a potentially neglected one. In a small community, it might be easy to tell if a child is walking to their nearby house, but in a larger community, it might be unclear how far the child is travelling or the conditions to which that child might have been subjected. A lot of calls to the authorities erred on the side of caution, which is good natured, but also is ultimately a waste of resources and a potential disaster for parents who have been wrongfully reported, who can be arrested on negligence charges.
What is also needed in addition to the passing of the law is education on how to distinguish a potentially neglected child from an independent one as well as a paradigm shift on parenting itself. Nowadays, a parent who is seen giving their child freedom is automatically a bad, uninvolved parent. While ‘freerange parenting’ is a technique often used by earlier generations of parents, the technology we have access to today encourages us to either embrace giving children more freedom or to become even more involved with our children.
Today, we have access to cell phones with location-sharing features that allow us to constantly know where someone else is. Cell phones also give children the opportunity to check in with parents and contact them immediately in the case of emergency. Allowing children to be independent in today’s world is a lot safer than it was a couple of decades ago. A child that play in the park with their friends can easily be monitored by parents from afar. It doesn’t make sense to physically cling to one’s child when the technology is there for parents to ensure the safety of their child when they are alone. It also builds trust between a parent and child. When a parent trusts a child to contact them if they need anything, there is an agreement made to keep a parent aware of the child’s relative whereabout in exchange for independence. Although anti-free range parenting is a new phenomenon, sheltering a child is outdated and oftentimes misinformed.
Statistics around child abuse, kidnapping and child abduction are often misleading. Yes, a large number of children go missing every year, but it is a small fraction of the child population and has been decreasing every year. According to The Washington Post, kidnapping went down by 31 percent from 1997 to 2011. While most parents teach their children to be wary of strangers, kidnappings that involve a child being taken by a stranger or acquaintance are only one percent of total kidnappings in a given year. The reality is that a child is much more likely to be taken by a family friend or relative. Kidnapping is also loosely defined, in that a parent who does not have full custody of their child is technically kidnapping if they keep the child more than the court-allotted time. I don’t intend to downplay the real tragedies that occur, but it is clear that the overall risk is a lot lower than what is perceived by the general public. In addition to these statistics, children are most likely to be kidnapped at around the age of three, when parents are usually highly present in the child’s life. Total kidnappings peak at around age 19, when parents are no longer legally responsible for their child. Letting kids have some independence is a lot safer than it is perceived to be.
More states should adopt legislature similar to Utah’s ‘free-range parenting’ law. Independence is a crucial skill for children to learn. Growing up in a large city, I was allowed the freedom to walk myself to and from my neighborhood elementary and middle schools. I was given a simple flip phone and called home to let my parents know whether I would stop by the park or hang out with friends longer than expected. I learned how to communicate with my parents better and how to manage my time and small allowance. Independence let me use the lessons my mother taught me without her direct instruction, which I believe made me a lot more mature than my peers. While other teenagers struggled to grasp their newfound independence, I already had responsibility and self control instilled in me from a young age. Parents should not be punished for teaching their children how to live without them, as it is a crucial skill that should be learned sooner rather than later. Hopefully, this legislation helps to bring about a paradigm shift on freerange parenting, which is much needed.