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The First Free-Range Parenting Law Is a Major Win for Kids — and Parents

Two brothers, backpack walking, holding on warm day  on the

The country’s first-ever “free-range parenting” law just went into effect in Utah. As other states across the U.S. contemplate similar legislation, it could be a sign of more changes to come. 

The Utah law amends the definition of neglect with regard to childcare, stating explicitly that “neglect” does not include “permitting 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 as walking or biking to and from school or other nearby facilities, playing outside, or staying at home or in a car unattended.

Utah lawmakers said they were motivated to amend their state’s laws by the predicament of Danielle Meitiv, a parent in Maryland whose case hit the national spotlight when she and her husband were charged with child neglect for letting their two children, ages 6 and 10, walk home from a local park by themselves. 

“The fact that we need legislation for what was once considered common sense parenting a generation ago and is considered normal in every other country in the world is what surprises me,” Meitiv told The New York Times this week. “I’m glad Utah has put these protections in place after what I discovered when I tried to parent the way I was parented.”

As a parent in New Jersey, I get where she’s coming from. I grew up in the same town where I’m now raising my six kids. From the time I was 6, I walked the mile to and from school alone from (yeah, it’s true: uphill in the snow both ways). We played at different houses all over the block without letting anyone know where we were going. We biked to the local playground and back — though we did walk our bikes across the double-lined main road.

Nowadays, things have changed quite dramatically — so much so that just yesterday, my own 6-year-old literally pointed out the car window at a 10-year-old kid standing at a busy intersection. “What is that kid DOING?” she said. “Where are his parents?”

Has my neighborhood gone down the tubes in one generation and become more dangerous? Hardly – statistics show, in fact, just the opposite. According to a piece in Macleans: “In the U.S. each year, only about 100 kids — a small fraction of one percent of missing children each year — are taken by that stereotypical scary stranger, according to the Polly Klaas Foundation, a non-profit organization for child safety and finding missing children established after Klaas’s kidnapping. The majority make it home. Couple that with a long decline in child mortality rates plus a significant drop in child pedestrians getting hit by cars and, as the Washington Post put it in 2015, ‘there’s never been a safer time to be a kid in America.’” 

And yet, within a span of one generation, parents have become much more omnipresent in our childrens’ lives, from relentlessly volunteering at school, to always attending sports games, to always showing up (without fail) at the classroom door for school pickup. My son’s future high school has “Tours on Tuesdays” for parents of incoming freshmen this spring — by contrast, I am pretty sure my parents didn’t visit my high school until my first chorus concert.

I play into these assumptions of parental over-involvement more than I’d like. In fact, I’m ashamed to say that the very idea that my almost-7-year-old could walk to school alone on Walk To School Day never occurred to me as an option. And it clearly didn’t occur to anyone else, either, as every child I saw was accompanied by at least one parent or caregiver.

What are we so afraid of? The likelihood that our child would be abducted by a stranger is shockingly, unbelievably small. “But my kid doesn’t know the way and might get lost,” some might say. Or, “she might get tired,” or, “what if he takes a shortcut through someone’s backyard?” To these, I would respond, “Try it once or twice with the kid and see if they figure out where they’re going.” Or, “she might — and but you can tell her to take a sip of water and keep going  — it’s not that far!” Or, “talk to him before he goes about private property.”

In the era of the iPhone — where we can track each others’ smallest excursions in real time — we are, in fact, guilty of neglect: We, as parents, neglect to allow our children the opportunities to be alone, do things for themselves, make mistakes, and learn from them. Instead, we treat them as hothouse flowers that need to be raised in lab-like conditions. We deny them the chance to grow by experiencing the blessing of the occasional skinned knee, to paraphrase the modern Jewish parenting guru Wendy Mogel.

We need to give kids age-appropriate and maturity-appropriate(which each parent needs to determine independently) opportunities to do things for themselves, whether it’s play or homework or sports — and, yes, that can also include getting to the place where they do those things.

There’s always parental peer pressure, whether it’s to give out favors at your kid’s bar mitzvah or to give your kid a smart phone. As a comparatively experienced parent, I recommend standing up to it sooner rather than later. You are your kids’ only parents. You have the opportunity of a lifetime — literally — to create kids with the courage of their convictions. Also? You know your kid! If she can handle more responsibility, then let her. By all means, if he can’t handle a certain responsibility yet, don’t give it to him — but provide the tools so that he can get there.

Are there parents out there who would find it easier to accompany their kids everywhere rather than face potential backlash or consequences? Probably. I feel bad for them. Meitiv, for one, faced very real consequences for her  decision. Fortunately, however, it seems as though enough people were horrified by what she had to go through that there might be some positive changes in the law.

Lawmakers in other states, including New York and Texas, are considering changing or amending their definitions of “neglect” so that it doesn’t encompass kids playing outside without a parent but with their blessing. I believe such a change would be a good thing. But I also believe that we, as parents, need to tweak our own senses of what it means to be a “good parent.” Sometimes, being a good parent means taking a step back and letting your child go precisely when you want to hold tight — for their sake, if not for our own.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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