Biking with friends, playing in the park, walking to the corner store to pick up milk. Normal childhood stuff, right? Well, not in today's world of handheld helicopter parenting. Moms and dads who let their kids roam around unsupervised are called a few different things — "free-range parents" by some and "neglectful parents" by others. Some have been hauled into court on neglect charges.
A new law in Utah seeks to restore the rights of parents to let kids roam free. Our guests discuss the balancing act of letting kids explore without getting charged with neglect or abuse.
On Point guest host Jennifer Glasse talked with Republican Utah State Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who sponsored Utah's "free-range parenting" bill; Lenore Skenazy, found of the "Free-Range Kids" movement; and Meghan Leahy, parenting columnist for the Washington Post. Highlights below have been lightly edited for clarity.
On the Utah law:
Fillmore: "My bill is really in response to that the idea that some parents want to give their children opportunities to be independent, to learn self-reliance and that when parents do that sort of thing, it's not a crime. It's a style of parenting that's important. Everybody would agree that kids need to learn to explore, to discover the world, to learn skills of problem solving and self reliance on their own, so that they're not going to be completely reliant on their parents when they become adults.
We really do need a law because in states across the country, parents have in fact been arrested or lost custody of their children or been investigated, really for things as simple as letting their kids play at the park, and for whatever you might have as an opinion about that as a parenting style, I would think that most people could agree that that sort of thing is not a crime. That you know if you have a 10-year-old and an 8-year-old kid playing in a park that's near your house, and then they walk home, it's just it's not a crime. And so what this bill does was simply change the definition of neglect, which in states across the country is simply interpreted too broadly by police and by government agencies to include things like just leaving your kids unsupervised for any amount of time for any reason."
Leahy: "This bill is exactly right. Parents have the right. If you want to keep your child locked up in your home from the light of day, you have that right. And if you want to let them outside until 8 o'clock at night, you have that right. I think that maybe it is a sad statement on our country. But it's what's needed... You want a bill in your state to protect you."
Skenazy: "The bill in Utah was passed unanimously. So it's not like a left-wing conspiracy or a right-wing thing. It's a whole legislature recognizing that parents don't want to have to be second guessed by a busybody with a cellphone calling a young child protective services worker saying, 'Oh I wouldn't let my kid do that at age 8 so I'm going to arrest you' It's like, no, I actually know and care about my kid more than you do. And I made this decision and you can see that I'm not starving them or beating them so why don't you back off."
How the "free-range" movement started:
Skenazy, on her essay "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride The Subway Alone": "Basically it's recreating my entire childhood. Really it's the idea that kids have always grown up playing outside with their friends, mixed-age groups and parents who let them were considered normal, not negligent. The reason they could let them go and play outside or walk to school, run some errands, is because we didn't think of children as in constant danger. And what has changed is this lens that we look through, this distorting dystopian lens where we think that anytime a child is outside unsupervised oh my god they're in grave danger, when of course, they're not.
And in fact, they're in less danger than when I was growing up because the crime rate today is at a 50-year low and there's no reason, if our parents sent us out to play or ride bikes till the streetlights come on, that we can't do the same for our own kids."
On free-range parenting in a helicopter parenting world:
Leahy: "People who live in this city tend to be maybe a little more tolerant of having ids go free. Maybe it's just because there's just so many people. But when you get out into these larger suburban areas... one of the major parenting problems that people call me with is that the parents are trapped with their children on beautiful days. It's 65 degrees, the sun is out, and the parents feel like they are being held hostage. And there isn't this idea that you can just let the kids go outside. So everybody puts a $12,000 play structure in their backyard. But guess what. That's boring too... Most people can't [afford it]. But you'll see in the sprawl many of these types of things. So what ends up happening is that parents end up struggling with their kids more and have more frustrations, more discipline problems, because their kids are not sufficiently independent and outside and being able to move their bodies."
Skenazy: "It's like we've taken away the freedom of children, and in the process, we've taken away the freedom of adults, often the moms, who suddenly have to spend every waking hour [with the kids]. Our parents could send us out in the morning on a Saturday and see us, you know, maybe at lunch or maybe at dinnertime... parents don't want to be spending every single second with their children encouraging and watching and playing with them. They want the kids to go have a life. But of course if you're afraid that you're going to be arrested, that's hard. And also if there are no other kids outside that's hard."
Leahy: "Oh there's so much anxiety and I'm going to just give a shout out to the parents who are doing the best they can because we know in our hearts that we can have faith in our fellow Americans, even though the country feels a little wild right now. We actually know intellectually that people are generally good. We can find the data that supports that children are pretty safe, that the note that the abductions are mostly people you know, like custody issues, and that sexual assault is also from people you know. So that is true and parents know that. But the 24-hour cycle is working on a part of our brain that is easily panicked.
And there's nothing more panicking to a parent than going right into that family unit. And so you actually have to stay diligent as a parent to not tune into the news because, you know, I feel like parents get thrown under the bus. But then you tune in and the brain takes in the horrors of the images especially. If you can read the print, your brain can handle it but it's the images and the ticker and a sensible rational "free-range parent" can be tripped right into anxiety. It is the parent's anxiety that leeches more into the kids. And so I'm always telling the parents listen,you just have to. It's an act of faith to break through the anxiety because we want to return to a time that we're never going to, because my parents didn't raise me with a CNN ticker of remains found in a field."
How parenting is affected by race, and class:
Leahy: "Working parents don't seem to have this helicopter parenting issue because they don't have time, so their children are more free-range out of necessity. But ironically, if you move into dangerous urban environments, which is where lower-income black families, then you actually turn into that these children aren't allowed out because there are actual real, serious, danger issues. It is a whole different conversation and yes, helicopter parenting is a white person issue, it seems. And it is a higher socio=economic class issue, which is quite a luxury and a privilege for many of us."
Skenazy: "When helicopter parenting becomes the norm and anything less than that is considered illegal and worthy of investigation, then of course people of lower means are going to have it the worst, because if they have to let their kid come home as a latchkey kid because they're working, they too should not be investigated if they're making a decision based on what their circumstances are or what they know their kid can handle and reality of their kid being pretty darn safe doing some things on their own. Who are the authorities to second guess their own loving rational parenting decisions. So you think that it is a divided issue that it's something? All I'm saying is when this idea that you must be hovering all the time and take your kids from one activity to the next becomes the only acceptable parenting means then we're all under the same yoke and some people have even fewer resources to do it with. So that's why we need a law like Utah's to give the parenting decisions back to the parents and take them away from the authorities."
Republican Utah State Sen. Lincoln Fillmore: Sponsored Utah's "free-range parenting" bill. (@lincolnfillmore)
Lenore Skenazy: President of the nonprofit Let Grow, founder of the "Free-Range Kids" movement. Author of "Free-Range Kids: How To Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)." (@FreeRangeKids)
Meghan Leahy: Parenting columnist for the Washington Post. (@mlparentcoach)
From The Reading List:
New York Times: Utah Passes 'Free-Range' Parenting Law — "It is not a crime for parents to let their children play unsupervised in a park or walk home from school alone under a law signed by Utah’s governor last week."
Utah has just passed the nation’s first so called free-range parenting law – allowing children to walk run or bike to school, to play outside, or stay at home alone. It’s in stark contrast to helicopter parenting. Two very different styles of raising kids. Social media and technology make it easier to watch children but can bring more reasons to worry about them.
Up Next On Point: How much independence should children have?
This program aired on April 2, 2018.