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A Discussion: The Free-Range Parenting Bill

Written by Kate MacLean

Photography by Domino Kirke, Photographed By Maria Del Rio

Last month Utah’s legislature passed the first free-range parenting bill in the nation. The bill was part of a wider bill clarifying child neglect laws of the state. In it they included language to permit “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: traveling to and from school, traveling to and from nearby commercial and recreational facilities, engaging in outdoor play, remaining in a vehicle unattended, remaining at home unattended…”. While baby boomers may scoff at the redundancy of such a bill, it marks for today’s parenting norms of upper and middle class families a change in the tides. The past two decades have been dominated by helicopter parenting. In the last several years, however, there has been a growing movement to undo the harm of parent hyper-involvement. The change is deeply needed for the benefit of a child’s future, but in it comes an unacknowledged and problematic racism.

For parents who aren’t constrained by time, money, and second-jobs, these two forms of parenting—helicopter and free-range—have dominated blogs, bookshelves, and minds. The core of the helicopter parent is a fear that the child will suffer without parental intervention (whether abjectly to her health and safety, or in eventual failure in college admissions and job selection). The free-range parent stresses that the child will not be able to succeed as an adult without getting a taste for freedom, independence, trust, personal responsibility, and decision-making at a young age. The free-range parent doesn’t lock their child out of the house and slip a $20 bill under the door for food. Instead, she aims to create a safe and healthy environment in which she can leave her child.

Lenore Skenazy wrote 10 years ago about her Bloomingdale’s experiment with her nine-year-old son. Her personal essay caught fire, and she is credited to this day as the founder of the Free-Range Parenting Movement. Skenazy, with the input and encouragement of her son, left him in the department store with a metro card and $20, and told him to meet her at home. He did meet her at home and according to her, he was ecstatic with the taste of independence. She continued to allow him more and more of these solo adventures and caught much flack for it. At one point, she was known as “America’s Worst Mom“.

Skenazy and her many followers contend that statistically your child is safer in this world than you may fear. They cite statistics that child abductions are down, and add that most abductions involve a family member or acquaintance (76% of all total kidnappings) and not a random stranger. They remind us that kids are more likely to be killed by a moving car than by sitting alone in their parent’s car, while their mother shops for groceries. Thirty kids die each year from being left in a car (and tragically overheating), whereas 400 kids die each year from being hit as an unseen pedestrian.

Laws differ state by state for child neglect. While Utah is the only state with explicit free-range parenting exemptions Idaho, New York, Colorado, Arizona, and Texas are all reportedly considering such bills. Nineteen states have laws expressly forbidding children alone in cars. Three states have laws mandating at what age children can be left at home (Illinois requires kids to be 14, Maryland: 8, and Oregon: 10).

While there exist many critics and research challenging such regulations, the benefits of them is that they create a specific, measurable law that is not open to interpretation. Leaving laws ambiguous in language is dangerous and asking for trouble (and much debate and confusion). Just look at the mess the Founding Fathers left us with the Second Amendment and all those infamous and ambiguous commas. The language of the Utah bill is egregiously ambiguous. Phrases like “basic needs” and “sufficient age” and “unreasonable risk of harm” pepper the wording of this bill. Advocates worry that this will unfairly protect upperclass (and white) parents, while their lower class counterparts will continue to face unjust racial and class prejudice. As so eloquently summed up in The AtlanticThe law doesn’t specify when free-range parenting becomes neglectful parenting, and that gives authorities an uncomfortable amount of discretion. A major shortcoming of their otherwise well-intentioned movement is that the people who have the most to gain from it—poor and working-class parents—will find themselves held to a different set of expectations.”

There are many parents who leave their children unattended at home, based on their own personal judgement and for a variety of reasons. Some, like free-range-parents, do so solely to better the child’s character. Others do so out of economic necessity. Whether it is summer vacation, a weekend, or after-school hours, many parents cannot afford extra childcare. Circumstances require them to continue at their jobs—no matter the time conflict that it presents. In 2014, a South Carolina woman was jailed and her daughter put in the custody of Child Protective Services. The mother’s “crime” was allowing her daughter to play at a playground—unattended—while she worked at the nearby McDonald’s. It was summer vacation and while the daughter had historically sat in a booth at the fast-food restaurant and played on the computer while her mother worked, that computer had recently been stolen. So, she went to the park instead. The mother was put in jail for nine days until a crowdfunding effort could post her bail.

The bottom line here is clear: if you are poor and your children are left unattended, you are neglectful and can even face jail time. If you are wealthy and your children are left unattended, you are hailed as a top liberal mind and written about with frequency in The Times.

As with any new legislation, this Utah Free-Range Parenting Bill must be looked at with a critical and nuanced eye. White and upper-middle class parents continue to enjoy many privileges as parents that black and lower class parents do not. The Free-Range Parenting Movement is no exception. The new law has the potential to swing cultural norms of parenting back to a more sane, less paranoid place. By giving kids more independence, we will create adults who have more respect for this independence, who could become even better citizens of our global community. But, first parents and officials need to confront their biases and perception of parenting through lenses of race and class discrimination for this movement to be able to be embraced fully and equally.

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