By Lenore Skenazy
Oh, to be as ahead of the curve as Utah!
That state just passed the first-in-the-country Free-Range Parenting Law, based on the movement I founded, Free-Range Kids. The law guarantees that parents who choose to let their kids play outside, walk to school, wait briefly in the car (under some circumstances) or come home with a latchkey will not be considered “negligent.”
Why would anyone need a law like that?
Because being investigated or even arrested for giving kids some old-fashioned, unsupervised time is now something parents have to worry about, thanks to two recent developments:
1. The belief that any time kids are out of their parents’ sight, they’re automatically in grave danger.
2. Cell phones.
Here’s the toxic scenario:
A passerby sees a child outside on his own. This has become so rare, it is like spotting a lemur escaped from the zoo. So what do they do?
They whip out their phone and dial 911. Then they pat themselves on the back — after all, they just “saved” a child — and off they go. Do they stop and make sure the child is actually OK? Of course not! All that matters is that they made the call. They’re on a moral high.
What happens next can involve anything from a shrug by the cops, to a warning to the parents, to a Child Protective Services investigation, to an actual arrest. For instance:
• The state of Illinois cited Natasha Felix for neglect after she let three children, aged 5, 9, and 11, play in the park next to her home, where she could see them from her window. She checked on them every 10 minutes, but a passerby thought the kids were unsupervised, and called Child Protective Services. It took two years of fighting before a state appellate court overturned the finding of neglect.
• An Omaha woman taking her niece out of an SUV was shocked when the wind blew the door shut with her keys and the child inside. The car locked! The aunt, the girl’s mom, and two other relatives frantically tried to open the door open using a hanger and screwdriver, and when they couldn’t, they called 911. The cops arrived, broke the window, and got the child out, safe and sound. Then they ticketed the mom on “suspicion of child abuse by neglect.”
There have been other stories of families investigated for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home from the park in Silver Spring, Md.; a South Carolina mom thrown in jail for letting her 9-year-old play in a popular sprinkler park without her; a Connecticut mom clapped into handcuffs when she overslept and her son, 8, walked to school on his own. And closer to home, a dad here in central New York was investigated for letting his 9-year-old wait in the car with her 6-year-old (snoozing) brother, while he ran an errand.
These are not crazy decisions that endanger kids. Even waiting briefly in cars is safe — kids who die in cars were forgotten there for hours, not waiting a few minutes while their parents picked up the dry cleaning (And actually, more kids die walking across parking lots than waiting in cars, so why do we criminalize the safer of the two alternatives?).
As for abduction — the rarest of crimes — our crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents a gallon. Back then we didn’t arrest parents who let their kids walk home from the park.
Decent, loving parents should not have to worry about being second-guessed by authorities excessively worried about unlikely dangers. Especially since not giving kids any independence turns out to be dangerous in its own right.
Peter Gray, one of the co-founders of my new non-profit, Let Grow, has been studying the connection between free time and child development for decades. He’s a professor of psychology at Boston College and author of the text book “Psychology” used at colleges across the country, including Harvard. He has determined that when kids have all their time structured and supervised by adults — parents, teachers, coaches and tutors — they don’t get a chance to develop the skills that make them healthy, well-adjusted adults. Skills like creativity, compromise, and problem-solving.
“Nothing we do, no amount of toys we buy or ‘quality time’ or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways,” Gray has written.
Parents must be allowed to give that freedom back to their kids.
Utah paved the way. Let’s make New York the next state to go free-range.
Lenore Skenazy president of Let Grow, and founder of Free-Range Kids.