Colin McCallin April 5, 2018

Freedom versus safety is a common and important debate that informs how we design laws and regulations, but when it comes to kids, the questions become more sensitive. What are reasonable boundaries to set and at what ages?

Utah has passed a law eliminating a set age limit for kids to participate in certain activities. Rather than claim there are arbitrary ages where a child may be left alone at home, or be allowed to walk to school, or take public transportation, the law states that a child exhibiting competence in their activity who is clearly well cared for, may not be interfered with by authorities, and families need not be accused of neglect.

What is Free Range Parenting?

In 2008 Lenore Skenazy, made a decision that catapulted her into the public eye. After her son repeatedly requested it, she determined that her 9 year old was capable of riding the subway alone. He did and was just fine, in fact, he was thrilled by his new found independence, but there was a huge outcry and debate surrounding the decision.

So Skenazy began to advocate for free-range parenting, a term that simply means allowing children to participate in activities independently. Think of it as the opposite of, or antidote to helicopter parenting. Free range parenting fosters independence in children at earlier ages by allowing kids to interact with the world alone and learn lessons and solve problems as they arise.

Skenazy and other advocates point out that despite repeated warnings of stranger danger, abduction and harm by strangers is actually quite rare, and the world is safer than ever before. They believe the benefits to letting a kid figure out new challenges alone far outweigh the risks, and the independence they exhibit benefits parents too. Not only does it free up their time, but they have increased confidence in their children’s abilities and worry much less.

The Utah Law

This measure was sponsored by Senator Lincoln Fillmore to amend child neglect laws, and states, “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, including: (A)traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling; (B)traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities; (C)engaging in outdoor play; (D)remaining in a vehicle unattended, except under the conditions described in Subsection 76-10-2202(2); (E)remaining at home unattended; or (F)engaging in a similar independent activity.”

Fillmore and supporters felt there was a need to pass this law to protect parents from unnecessary interference, like the case of Maryland couple, the Meitivs, who were twice charged with child neglect for allowing their 10 and 6 year olds to walk to and from the park alone; or the case of the Long Island couple who left their toddler napping in a car. They were eventually cleared, but many stories across the country reveal that parents have been scrutinized for their kids walking to school alone, sitting in cars while the parent enters a store briefly, and other benign but unsupervised moments.

Other Concerns

Critics are concerned that this style of parenting puts kids at risk, despite stranger danger being so unusual. In Arkansas, a similar bill was recently shot down due to such fears. There were also concerns that the law was overbroad and could potentially make it more difficult to prosecute parents who were truly neglectful. While legislators understand that most parents should be left alone and trusted in their parenting decisions, there is a fear that modified neglect laws may be abused.

This legislation is the considered the first pro free range parenting law, and it passed unanimously. Skenazy continues to advocate for free range parenting at