I was on a mission to buy sparkly blue eyeshadow with my babysitting money.
I was in the sixth grade. I thought sparkly blue eyeshadow was cool. But most notably, nobody batted an eye at a 12-year-old babysitting or walking alone half a mile to the drug store.
Fast-forward 30 years and a totally typical scenario from my latchkey childhood feels risky — at least to some people.
Parents have been arrested for letting their school-aged children play in parks alone, CPS has intervened when kids were found walking alone, and some parents have even had the authorities called on them for letting their kids play alone in their own yards.
This kind of “helicopter neighboring” sounds way over the top to a certain kind of old-school parent. To others, though, it may seem perfectly reasonable to be concerned about children walking around unsupervised.
Utah is the first state to put its foot down and legally allow kids to get a little free-range.
In March, Gov. Gary Herbert signed the “free-range parenting” bill into law after it passed unanimously in the Utah House and Senate. Going into effect on May 8, the Republican-sponsored bill limits the definition of child neglect, exempting various activities children can engage in safely without being supervised by an adult.
The Utah State Capitol building. Photo by George Frey/Getty Images.
The law allows for “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 … ” Such activities include letting children “walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended.“
What a “sufficient age“ might be isn’t specified, leaving the judgment to individual families.
The basis of the law is that parents shouldn’t be punished for letting their kids experience childhood.
The bill’s co-sponsor, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, told ABC News:
“Kids need to wonder about the world, explore and play in it, and by doing so learn the skills of self-reliance and problem-solving they’ll need as adults. As a society, we’ve become too hyper about ‘protecting’ kids and then end up sheltering them from the experiences that we took for granted as we were kids. I sponsored SB65 so that parents wouldn’t be punished for letting their kids experience childhood.”
Lenore Skenazy signing her book “Free Range Kids.” Photo via Elizabeth/Flickr.
The term “free-range parenting” used by the bill comes from a relaxed parenting style made famous by New York mother Lenore Skenazy.
In 2009, when her son was 9 years old, Skenazy let him take the subway home by himself, setting off a firestorm of both criticism and praise. She wrote a book, “Free Range Kids,” defending her encouragement of her children’s independence.
Now, clearly not all parents would feel comfortable letting their 9-year-old use public transportation in a major city by themselves. I know I wouldn’t have — nor would any of my kids have even wanted to at that age.
But I do shoo my children outside to play without worry.
The pendulum swing toward helicopter parenting appears to be swinging back, which is (probably) a good thing.
The 24/7 news cycle and virality of social media stories have created a sense of paranoia in parents — and society at large — when it comes to kids and safety. I’ve never been one to wax nostalgic about the “good old days” of my childhood, but in this particular area, I do think we’ve become a little ridiculous.
I mean, calling the authorities when you see a child playing in their own backyard?
The fact is that American kids as a whole are actually statistically safer now than at any time in our history. We may hear more scary stories, but that’s due to the nature of technology, not the nature of the world. It’s OK for kids to walk to school, play at the park, or stay home on their own whenever parents and kids decide that they’re responsible and ready for it.
Perhaps others states should follow Utah’s lead so that parents, who know their kids better than anyone else, can feel comfortable loosening up the apron strings a bit. And hopefully nosy neighbors will catch a clue from it as well and stop calling CPS every time they see a school-aged child unattended.
If we want our kids to learn to fly, we have to allow to them to stretch their wings — and we should be able to do that without worrying about getting in trouble for it.