Free-range parenting involves giving your kids plenty of independence to instill confidence, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Learn more about this controversial parenting method and the laws that govern it.

By Ellen Sturm Niz and Nicole Harris
Updated November 01, 2019

By now, you’ve probably heard of the controversial free-range parenting philosophy. It involves granting your children independence for certain tasks—like walking to school alone—based on maturity level and skillset. But while some parents think the method instills confidence and character, others consider it a form of neglect. Here’s what you need to know about free-range parenting.

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The Free-Range Parenting Philosophy

While the free-range parenting definition varies between families, it essentially involves giving your kids responsibilities at a young age. These responsibilities vary based on the specific child’s capabilities. They might include, for example, walking to the park alone, riding bikes to school, or taking public transportation without supervision. 

It's important to note that free-range parenting isn’t detachment, since mom and dad are still very much involved. They’ll teach essential life skills, guide their children through challenges, and inform them about safety precautions. But when it comes to practicing these lessons in real life, free-range parents step back and let their children take the reigns. The desired result is an increased sense of independence, confidence, problem-solving skills, creativity, and more.

Free-range parenting is the opposite of super-involved “helicopter parenting.” It’s also reminiscent of decades past, when children would play outside until the street lights turned on. This, according to some parents, gives them the chance to just be kids and explore the world. 

The Controversy of Free-Range Parenting

The free-range parenting movement stems from former New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy, who let her 9-year-old son find his way home alone while navigating the New York City subway system. Naturally, the media attacked Skenazy’s decision (which she wrote about for the New York Sun) and many publications dubbed her "America's Worst Mom." These events kick-started the controversy around the free-range parenting philosophy.

Proponents say that the tactic helps children build confidence, which turns them into responsible, capable adults with stellar problem-solving skills. But critics consider free-range parenting a form of dangerous neglect. There have also been legal consequences to practicing free-range parenting.

Consider, for example, the 2015 case of a 10-year-old boy and his six-year-old sister walking one mile from their Maryland home to the park. These children were stopped by police and taken home. 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. 

In the end, the decision to free-range parent is up to moms, dads, and their children. Of course, your state and local laws should also come into play. 

Free-Range Parenting Laws

Every state has different laws for leaving kids unattended at home or in an automobile. A few states also have a minimum age for leaving a child alone in the house; for example, it’s 12 years old in Delaware and 8 years old in Georgia. You can check out some of the details here

Back in 2018, Utah became the first state 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. The bill fundamentally changed 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. A similar bill was introduced in South Carolina in early 2019, for example. Only time will tell if other states change their definition of child neglect, too.

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