Utah made headlines this year by becoming the first state to explicitly legalize “free range parenting,” a philosophy that believes children should be given freedom to navigate the world on their own without parental supervision.
Like many people in my generation, I have fond memories of heading out on a summer day right after breakfast and having grand adventures with other kids, no adults allowed, until we all dragged ourselves home at dusk, exhausted and red-cheeked and a healthy sort of dirty.
It was actually the iconic Dr. Spock who first introduced the concept of free range parenting — that is, raising children with a spirit of independence and little adult supervision — in 1946.
For a long time, that sense of independence early on seemed to be the parenting norm. Or at least it was from my own perspective and experiences. But with a world increasingly at our fingertips and 24-hour news cycles bringing the worst of humanity into our living rooms in real time, we’ve all become a little more wary, perhaps keeping our children on shorter and tighter leases.
I like the idea of free range parenting. I agree that children need space to figure out what they are capable of, to have experiences that belong only to them, and that children are far more capable than we often think. I also agree that the world is not scarier or inherently more dangerous than it used to be, and that it’s mostly our perspective that makes it seem that way.
I’ve even been personally affected by the paranoia surrounding children left alone, in a small way when I lived in an apartment complex that didn’t allow kids to play unsupervised at all, not even outside of their own front doors. I have a friend who had the police called on her because her son was playing in the street alone… at the end of his own driveway.
And yet, free range parenting remains a philosophy I can’t quite get behind. I like it in theory, but like many theories, it doesn’t quite work in reality because free range parenting’s biggest issue is that allowing a child to roam free is a privilege that many parents do not have.
Giving kids more responsibilities and leaving them unsupervised has been a necessity for poor families for a long time. Having the choice to let your kids walk home alone from school or letting them cook their own dinners or giving them the option of spending chunks of time unsupervised is a privilege in itself.
For many parents, these things have long been a necessity due to long or unusual work hours, multiple jobs, or single parenthood. Low-income parents, and in particular low-income families of color, are more likely to face arrest and risk having their children removed by child services. (Utah, by the way, is 91.1% white.)
A recent study found that poor mothers are judged more harshly on their parenting, leading to more referrals to child welfare agencies. This is scrutiny that wealthy and middle class white families are less likely to find themselves dealing with.
There are other barriers to free range parenting too. I have a child with special needs, who doesn’t necessarily ping as such right away. To an outside observer, it may look as though I’m hovering and not trusting my child or hampering his confidence in himself, but it is in fact a life-long tightrope walk of encouraging him to be as independent as he can while being aware of his actual abilities to do so.
If you haven’t lived it, it’s difficult to understand just how complicated this balancing act can be. Independence for a special-needs child can look very different but is just as valid.
Finally, not all neighborhoods are created equal. It’s easy to give your child the freedom to explore on their own when it means going from one cul-de-sac to the next in a quiet suburban neighborhood, or in a larger town with ample sidewalks, and even in a big city with good public transportation and plenty of other kids who ride the subway to school.
But not so easy when crossing the street means an isolated neighborhood near a rural state highway, or a navigating larger town with crumbling infrastructure and few opportunities, or in a big city congested with cars and an unreliable bus system.
All of these things could make the case for free-range parenting, I suppose. What if the answer is to normalize it, pass more laws in favor of it, taking more steps to ensure that all kids, no matter their color or economic status or disability will be given more freedom and independence? But if the Utah law is anything to go by, these issues are going unaddressed completely, with only arbitrary language that gives the state guidelines using “discretion” over whether or not a child is being neglected or is just “free-range,” discretion that has historically not been applied fairly across the board.
This isn’t to say that free range parenting doesn’t work or can’t, or that we haven’t gone too far in the direction of paranoia and increasing restrictions when it comes to our kids’ safety.
But if free-range parenting is to actually be possible on a large scale for all children, there is still some work to be done.
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