A new law was signed at the end of March in Utah explicitly allowing children to go different places and spend time outside alone without any parental supervision. It was called the “free-range kids” bill, and it protects parents from charges of criminal neglect when they let their children walk to school or go to the park on their own. It’s a victory for parents in Utah who want to let their children be more independent and spend more time outside. Maybe it’ll translate to similar legal or cultural change in other states as well!
A lot of people who first hear about this new law may ask the obvious question: Does that mean it used to be illegal to let your children walk to the store down the street or play in the park without you? That can become a pretty urgent question for some parents who live outside Utah. The answer, however, is both yes and no. No, there is no law that specifically says children can’t go to the park alone. And as most parents and grandparents will tell you anecdotally, “We used to do it all the time!” However, in much of the U.S., leaving a child on their own has been regularly treated like a criminal offense.
When Parents Get Reported
There’s been no real shortage in recent years of parents who let their children play alone outside or walk home from school alone. Sometimes this is a choice to let their kids develop some independence, and sometimes it’s simply a necessity, because the parents are working and not available to watch the kids. What sometimes happens as a result, however, is that a concerned bystander sees the child alone, even if it’s just in the front yard, and calls the police. This can lead to serious consequences for the parent and child, resulting in criminal charges, and possibly even jail time or a custody challenge.
Some of these cases get significant media attention, in large part because it may seem so unintuitive to so many people. In 2012 a mother in Texas was arrested for child endangerment and spent 18 hours in jail overnight for letting her children play alone outside. In 2014 a mother in South Carolina dropped her daughter off to play at a busy public park while she went to work nearby. The mother was arrested and the girl was declared abandoned and given to Child Protective Services.
“Even if it’s a totally safe and intentional situation, a random neighbor walking by may not see it that way, and law enforcement tends to take their side when they get called in,” says Jonathan Marigliano, partner at Prieto Marigliano. “The irony is that these situations could so often be avoided if the neighbor would just track down and speak to the parent.”
How Safe is Safe
Naturally, our first priority as a parent is to protect our children, to keep them safe. In a way it’s understandable that the first reaction of many people to seeing a child seemingly alone and defenseless is to call for help. But the most important question here is “Where does this concern come from?” and “Is it based in reality?” Do we really believe that the parents of previous generations were guilty of negligence leaving their kids to play in the streets alone?
Many will say that no, that we live in a far more dangerous world today than the last generation did. But the problem is that that simply isn’t true. No matter which way you look at it, it’s safer to be a child in the United States today than it was any time in recent history. When we don’t let our children or even strangers’ children be alone outside, even for a short time, we are projecting our own often irrational fears of the world onto them.
As parents, everything you do and every choice you make ends up serving as an example to your children. They’re always watching and learning, and that’s where they get their values and priorities. As a parent it’s your responsibility to carefully consider what values you’re passing on. And when you overprotect your children and anxiously hide them from dangers that exist more in our nightmares than real life, you’re not teaching them the value of safety, you’re teaching them about fear and distrust.
So give your children space to grow, discover themselves and explore the world on their own. Unfortunately, if you don’t live in Utah, you may need to be very careful about the judgmental eyes of your neighbors. But there’s reason to hope all this talk of “free-range parenting” may signal a cultural shift back toward the way things used to be.