In December 2014, Maryland parents Danielle and Alexander Meitiv received a visit from police and were investigated by Child Protective Services over concerns about parental neglect after allowing their two children, ages 6 and 10, to walk one mile home from a nearby park.
Similarly, in August 2018, after allowing her eight-year-old daughter to walk her dog around the block, parent Corey Widen was investigated by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services.
These events stem from society’s current hypervigilance to danger, which has made parents face criticism and even legal consequences for allowing their kids to perform reasonable, independent activities. Fortunately for both kids and parents, the “Free-Range Kids” movement seeks to resist hysteria, rescue kids’ childhoods, and reinforce the authority of parents.
Proponents of the movement strive to help kids learn and grow by giving them more freedom and independence. Free-range parents allow their kids to engage in independent activities while continuing to set guidelines and expectations.
The spirit of the movement reflects American legal tradition, which has long respected the authority of parents to direct the care and upbringing of their children. In Wisconsin v. Yoder (1972), the U.S. Supreme Court stated, “This primary role of the parents in the upbringing of their children is now established beyond debate as an enduring American tradition.”
Despite this tradition, the laws in many states penalize parents for allowing their children to be unsupervised. Under current law, Idaho families could face retaliation or even jail time for letting their kids be kids.
Over the past few years, efforts to protect the authority of parents through free-range parenting laws have been gaining momentum. Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas have succeeded in passing these laws, which protect parents’ right to let their kids exercise a reasonable degree of self-reliance and autonomy.
A number of other states, including Idaho, have introduced or considered similar bills, which protect parents by amending the statutory definition of “neglect” so that certain activities like walking to and from school, playing outside, and staying home alone for a reasonable time are not considered neglectful behavior on the part of parents.
Rep. Ron Nate, who sponsored Idaho’s bill, affirmed that he supported the legislation because he believed it would help kids become “better, independent, critical thinkers as adults.”
Supporters argue that giving kids more freedom to explore the outdoors and engage in active play could help alleviate the childhood obesity problem.
Furthermore, free-range parenting laws protect parents. Rep. Nate said, “[W]e want to make sure that parents feel comfortable to let their kids engage in … independence building activities without the fear of being accused of being neglectful or in the extreme even being charged of being neglectful.”
Opponents of free-range parenting laws worry that without parental supervision, children could be abducted or hit by a car as they walk or play alone. Child safety is important to every parent. However, safety is not antithetical to encouraging children to be self-sufficient and preparing them to handle challenging situations.
Parents are the most familiar with the maturity of their children and are best equipped to decide what level of independence their kids can handle. Families need the freedom to let their kids learn and grow without fear of facing criminal charges or investigation by Child Protective Services. And kids deserve the freedom to be kids.
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