Legislation and Public Policy Aimed at Restoring Childhood

Can free-range parenting laws and city proclamations help restore kids’ freedom?

By Peter Gray Ph.D.  ‘Freedom to Learn’

Can laws and official public proclamations help to restore children’s rights to be children and parents’ rights to be parents?  There is some evidence that they can.

This is the third article in my series on ways of restoring children’s outdoor play in our overprotective world.  The first was about ways of overcoming parents’ fears of letting their children run free, and the second was about ways of creating places where children can find one another and play without adult interference.  This one is about ways that legislation and public policy pronouncements can empower parents to allow more freedom for their children.  More specifically, it’s about the value of state-legislated sanctions and city proclamations supporting children’s rights to roam and play independently in public spaces and parents’ rights to determine when their children are ready for such independence.

Utah’s “Free-Range Parenting Law”

In response to my survey of readers about how to restore children’s free outdoor play in today’s world—the survey that inspired this trio of essays—Jamie wrote: “I would love to allow my child to roam free, but am terrified of the culture that has come to believe that any child left unsupervised is neglected. I applaud Utah for passing a ‘Free-Range Parenting‘ law and hope more states will follow suit. I won’t have my legal rights to my child in the hands of a nosy neighbor and a legal system that has become interested in punishing parents for giving their children some space, so for now, I stay close, but try to keep quiet so my kid can be creative.

On March 15, 2018, Utah’s governor Gary Herbert signed into law a bill aimed at empowering parents, not the state, to decide when and where children should be allowed to roam and play without direct adult supervision.  The bill was inspired, in part, by Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids book and the work of the Let Grow nonprofit, of which Lenore is president and I am one of the founding Board members.  It is still possible for parents in Utah to be accused of negligence, but the new law ensures that the burden of proof in such cases is on the state to prove that the children were in serious danger.

In the words of state senator Lincoln Fillmore, the bill’s Senate sponsor (here): “What we’ve done with this bill is just define some specific things that neglect is not — like letting your kids play or walk to or from the park.” In the words of state representative Brad Daw, the bill’s House sponsor (here): “The law says that you can’t just call authorities if you see a child playing alone in the park. It frees up authorities from investigating these nuisance calls while allowing them to focus on children who are actually being neglected.”  And, in Governor Herbert’s words (here): “We believe that parents know and love their children better than anybody.  We believe that absent evidence of neglect, danger, or cruelty, parents have the best sense of how to teach responsibility to their children.  Responsible parents should be able to let kids be kids without constantly looking over their shoulders for approval.

It could be argued that Utah is one of the last states in the nation that actually needs such a law.  Utah citizen Krista Whipple wrote to me: “Free-range parenting is the norm here and has been since long before the law was passed. … Utahans are fiercely protective of their individual freedoms and most would view government interference with their parenting choices as far more frightening than the minuscule possibility of harm coming to their children when playing outside.”  She added, however, “That being said, coming from California where no such protections are in place, it gives me peace of mind knowing that I can let my kids have some freedom and responsibility without the fear of the potential consequences I may have faced in California where helicopter parenting is both socially and legally enforced.

Here are some other quotations from emails sent to me by parents in Utah.

Sarah (last name withheld) wrote about her children’s summer lemonade stand and her 12-year-old son’s traveling freely by bicycle and public transportation in the relatively large city where they live.  She added, “I’m so grateful that the Free-Range Parenting law allows me to safely teach my children how to be independent and confident without worrying about the judgment of a person who has helicoptering tendencies.

Brannon Burton wrote: “Like a lot of parents with young kids these days, I was probably a bit overprotective.  I worried about letting them walk to school, play at the park, or go trick or treating without an adult.  As my children have gotten older, I’ve started to realize that they are missing out on critical experiences that I had as a kid.  The ability to find their way around the neighborhood, the ability to problem-solve, and the ability to solve conflict on their own.  …  Without these experiences, my wife and I have observed that our kids stress easily, get stifled by easy problems, and are easily frustrated.  In an effort to fill these inadequacies, we felt it was important to allow our kids to go to the park on their own, wander the neighborhood, and play in a way that gave them the freedom to choose. … When we heard about the ‘Free-Range Parenting’ law, we felt far more comfortable that we wouldn’t be held liable in the law’s eyes or the community’s eyes.  It gave us the freedom to raise our kids in a manner that fits their needs, even if it carries more risk.  To us, the risk of having less resilient kids outweighs the dangers of unsupervised play.  We have taken full advantage of this law to promote independence with our kids.  My wife and I have observed more confidence in our children, more resilience; they’re more assertive, and they aren’t as easily stifled by simple problems anymore.

Unschooling mom Emma Powell wrote:…

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