happy kid plays superhero

Could free-range kids become the norm again?
By Jennifer Lade - March 21, 2019

“It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your children are?” intoned a PSA from the 1960’s.

Today’s version is more like, “It’s 3 p.m. Are you holding your 12-year-old’s hand?” as people have become less tolerant of kids ever being unsupervised by adults.

But maybe, finally, the pendulum is swinging back toward sanity. That’s the case in South Carolina, which is considering a “free-range parenting” bill.

According to the Greenville News, the bill would protect parents from abuse or neglect charges for allowing children of “sufficient age or maturity” to be unattended. That includes activities such as playing outside and walking or biking to school without supervision. Parents are able to use their discretion on what “sufficient” means for their children.

The measure won approval in the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. It will now move to the Senate floor for consideration.

If it passes, it will be the second state to have a free range parenting law. Utah enacted a similar law last May. The law redefined neglect and said that if a child’s basic needs were met, he or she could “engage in independent activities.”

If you’re over the age of 30, you can likely recall a childhood that included many independent activities. Biking, visiting playgrounds, and going to a store — all without a parent in sight — were commonplace for many of us. You were probably left in the car at one time or another and lived to tell about it.

My dad, almost 64, recalls the time he was driving with his parents to a party as a 4-year-old. He fell asleep in the back seat, and when they arrived at the party, his parents decided not to wake him. He slept in the car while they went inside. When he woke up later, he began knocking on doors and asking if his parents were there. A neighbor took him to the party and found his parents.

Notably, the neighbor did not call the police. And by my dad’s account, he was not even shocked to see a 4-year-old wandering the neighborhood.

Experiences like this are in our collective recent history. So it seems sad and bizarre that we must have laws to protect “free-range parenting.”

But things have changed. Fear of liability often trumps trust. Looking out for one another is often set aside in favor of judging another person’s parenting.

And unfortunately, these attitudes have a snowball effect. When parents fear legal action for letting their kids walk to the playground unattended, they stop letting them go. People get unused to seeing unattended kids, so when they do, it is cause for alarm. Those kids (and their parents) are hassled, shamed, or even reported to police. That makes parents even more reluctant to give their kids some freedom.

And that’s the parents, who have a vested interest in allowing their children more freedom. But when it comes to other caregivers, like babysitters or teachers, there is no incentive to leave kids unsupervised.

I was reminded of this recently when I dropped off my 9-year-old daughter, Penny, at a book club. It took place at the library, about a quarter mile from my house. Penny was adamant that she wanted to walk home when it was over, and I decided that would be fine. So I told the librarian that was the plan.

“She’s a little young,” the librarian said.

“Well, she wants to, and I’m OK with it,” I replied.

But an hour later, when the book club was over, I got a call from the librarian. She said I should come get Penny because she was upset about having to walk home.

“I could tell she didn’t want to,” the librarian told me.

Penny later said she was upset about an unrelated matter. But the librarian assumed her tears must have been about the horrible danger of having to walk home. A quarter mile. In a tiny town. In broad daylight.

I was embarrassed and annoyed about the situation, but it’s hard to blame the librarian for her actions. What was the incentive for her to let Penny walk home? If anything had happened to Penny, the librarian would have been the adult that released the child from her care. If Penny arrived home safely, the librarian gains nothing. Meanwhile, seeing her into her parents’ arms frees her from all liability.

That’s why we need these protective laws now: to push back against a culture of fear.

I’m not usually a fan of legislation as a way to solve problems. But this law is more a repeal of more restrictive laws that define neglect too broadly. So there is some good here.

First, the law puts discretion back in hands of the parents where it belongs. Many considerations about leaving children unattended are subjective. They depend on the maturity of the child, the environment they’re in, and how long the parent will be gone. It’s reasonable to think that the age of the child left alone can vary widely. That is why laws that specify an age are problematic.

Secondly, it frees up law enforcement to deal with real cases of abuse and neglect. Not fabrications or overreactions by busybodies.

Finally, free-range parenting laws acknowledge that yes, there are dangers to giving kids space and freedom. But there are dangers of NOT doing that, too.

One danger? Spending too much time inside. Half of children worldwide get less than an hour outside each day. That’s less than U.S. prison inmates. There are countless testaments to the benefits of time outside, such as better fitness and eyesight, as well as improved cognitive function and creativity.

But the biggest danger is raising a generation of children who believe they are fragile and helpless — and that everyone is out to get them. Scared, helpless children are more likely to grow up into scared, helpless adults. The type of people who want the State to protect them and prop them up. The type of people who don’t believe in individual responsibility.

Sure, it is sad that we need a law to affirm that parents know best and should get to decide what responsibilities to allow their children. But this law is a step in the right direction. It shows that at least some people are waking up to the idea that it’s OK to let the kids play.


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