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Free-Range Parenting Is No Longer Considered Neglect in Utah, According to New Law

Free-range parents are not neglecting their kids, but making a valid parenting choice to give them increasing freedoms based on their maturity and skills.

Kids on playground Chris Eckert
Are you as sick of these stories of free-range parents getting in trouble with the law as I am? Parents who let their kids walk somewhere by themselves or play at the park without them are not neglecting their children. It's a choice, and a valid one.

One very public example of an overreaction to free-range kids, a 10-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister were walking one mile from their Maryland home to the park when they were stopped by police. While I have no problem with the police checking to make sure the kids were okay on their walk, and even the fact that they took them home to confirm that it was okay for them to be out on their own, but what happened next is uncalled for. A few hours later the county's child protective services showed up, requiring the father to sign a pledge that he would not leave his children unsupervised until the following Monday when the agency would follow up. If he didn't sign, his children would be removed from the home. Since then, social workers have tried to examine their home and interviewed their children at school without the parents knowledge or permission.

Wow. Just wow. When interviewed by The Washington Post, the mother in this story shares intelligent, reasonable explanations of their free-range parenting decisions: Their kids have developed the skills and proven they are responsible enough to walk to the park on their own; it's important for children's development to learn self-reliance; and child abductions are actually quite rare. "Parenthood is an exercise in risk management," she said. "Every day, we decide: Are we going to let our kids play football? Are we going to let them do a sleepover? Are we going to let them climb a tree? We're not saying parents should abandon all caution. We're saying parents should pay attention to risks that are dangerous and likely to happen."

I couldn't agree more. Kids need to build confidence in their ability to handle the world, and we as parents can help them do that by thoughtfully giving them more freedom and independence based on their maturity and skills. At what age a child is ready to walk to the corner mailbox, ride her bike around the block, or walk a mile to the park is going to be different for each kid. But when they are ready, giving them those small experiences of conquering the world on their own will help them develop into confident, responsible adults. After all, isn't that the goal of parenting?

Since the free-range parenting debate began making headlines, Utah is officially the first state in the nation to pass a law in favor of the independent parenting style. According to The Washington Post, both chambers of Utah’s legislature unanimously passed the “free-range parenting” bill which was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert and is expected to take effect May 8th. The bill, backed by Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, fundamentally changes the state’s legal definition of neglect, 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 …” The bill allows children to, “walk, run, or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended.”

With the law in place in Utah, parents in other states are petitioning for similar laws at home. One parent in California launched a petition on Care2.com urging state lawmakers to follow in Utah's footsteps. At the time of publication, the petition already had more than 11,000 supporters. Only time will tell if other states change their definition of child neglect, too. 

Ellen Sturm Niz is a New York City-based editor and writer who fondly remembers walking a half-mile to the local Dairy Queen when she was a kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio. Follow her on Twitter and Google+ to see more of her articles about kids and parenting, home design and DIY projects, and food trends, and menu ideas.

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