This week, parents in one state can breathe a sigh of relief. Utah Governor Gary Herbert has made parenting a lot easier by signing a bill that legalizes “free-range” parenting.
Free-range parenting allows children to play without the constant and close supervision of their parents or another adult. Devotees believe children benefit from more freedom and learn vital decision making skills while playing at parks, walking to school, or wandering the neighborhood, without a parent hovering over them.
The bill’s sponsor, Utah state Senator Lincoln Fillmore recognized the benefits of free-range parenting saying, “kids need to wonder about the world, explore and play in it, and by doing so learn the skills of self-reliance and problem-solving they’ll need as adults," adding that society has “become too hyper about ‘protecting’ kids and then end up sheltering them from the experiences that we took for granted as we were kids.”
While all parents should cheer the bill’s passage, they should also ponder why this bill was even needed. A generation ago, free-range parenting was simply known as … parenting. Why now is the state required to “allow” people to make certain, and until very recently, normal parenting choices?
The sad answer to that question is that these laws are desperately needed. As Lenore Skenazy, founder of the Free Range Kids movement and head of the nonprofit Let Grow Organization, has documented for decades, many practitioners of free-range parenting have faced criminal charges and even prosecution for allowing their children the freedom to roam unattended by an adult.
Consider what happened to the Meitiv family. These parents from Maryland allowed their two children (ages 10 and 6) to walk to and play at a park less than a mile from their Silver Spring home. In 2015, as the children were walking home, police picked them up and handed them over to Child Protective Services, where they were held for more than five hours without notifying the Meitiv parents. CPS later opened a neglect investigation against them and although the Meitivs weren’t charged, this was a chilling example of the state disapproving of a parent’s personal decisions.
Or, consider what happened to Connecticut mom Maria Hasankolli. When her son missed his bus and began walking to school, the police were called about “an unaccompanied child.” Hasankolli was placed in handcuffs for allowing her child to walk to school and later charged with “risk of injury to a child.”
Similarly, Sonya Hendren from Sacramento, Calif, was arrested, when she let her four-year-old child play alone at a playground that was 120 feet from her home (that’s roughly two bowling lanes long, or going from home plate to second base). Again, her actions were deemed negligent and potentially dangerous to her child.
And just this week, a Missouri mom is facing charges for leaving her children in a car when she went into the gas station to pay for the gas because, according to that state’s law, it’s illegal to leave your child in a car unattended — even for the five minutes it takes to swipe your credit card at the cashier station.
Today, sitting in judgment of the way people choose to raise kids has become a very sad, unnecessary, and commonplace reality. Yet, it’s one thing to disagree with or even mock a parent’s style of raising kids and quite another to take punitive action against these same parents.
As a conservative, I tend to believe fewer laws are better and I generally resist the idea that we need legislative action to fix society’s problems. Yet, as a parent trying to raise kids in an increasingly judgmental and caution-loving culture, laws protecting parents who want to make their own parenting decisions — even unpopular ones — are clearly needed.
Contrary to what popular culture tells us, there simply is no right way to parent. Utah seems to understand this. Other states should follow.