Last week, Gov. Gary Herbert signed a bill legalizing “free-range parenting” in Utah. As the first of its kind in the country, this law reinforces the importance of families as the lifeblood of communities, but it also entrusts parents to be the primary teachers of self-sufficiency and public safety.
The new law, which takes effect May 8, specifies that parents aren’t neglecting their children if they choose to let them play outside alone or ride a bike to school without supervision.
Years ago, “free-range parenting” was just called parenting. In the era of Herbert’s childhood, it was more socially acceptable within American communities — both suburban and urban — for parents to give their children autonomy to roam, explore and play in their neighborhood unsupervised. Parents trusted their children to make responsible decisions and for the community to maintain a friendly watch.
In recent years, however, seeing children walking to school, riding public transportation or playing in public parks without an adult has become less common. Multiple cases have arisen of strangers calling Child Protective Services about children in public without supervision. In some instances, children have been taken away from their parents, with CPS determining the parents neglected their duties by letting their children play at a public park alone. This relatively new phenomenon, undoubtedly rooted in concern for the safety of children, is evidence of a concerning shift in social sentiment among American parents.
While there’s no clear cause for this trend, Bloomberg writer Megan McArdle hypothesizes that this is the result of a multiplicity of factors, including more ubiquitous access to negative news coverage of child abuse, making danger feel more imminent for parents; a rise in paid childcare, which emphasizes vigilant oversight; and groupthink, which adjusts a community’s norm for safety to the most concerned parent in the neighborhood.
Irrespective of what factors have contributed to this phenomenon, Utah’s new law serves as a reminder that parents should intentionally invest in their children’s self-sufficiency, which takes many forms. For some, this may look like the spatial autonomy most often associated with the concept of “free-range parenting.” For others, this may mean empowering children to make responsible decisions about how they spend their time instead of micromanaging, or "helicopter parenting," all of their extracurricular activity.
The law also reminds parents to have critical conversations with their children about safety and how to maintain vigilance at school, online and in public spaces. Children must be equipped with the capacity to identify danger or threatening situations and know to whom they should report concerns. No amount of parental oversight can serve as a substitute for the safety that comes from this kind of self-sufficiency.
The legislative approval of "free-range parenting" serves as a symbolic reminder that children deserve some degree of autonomy and that they learn best through exploration. The essence of "free-range parenting" is to create space for such exploration and learning to occur. The new law also emphasizes the need to de-stigmatize different parenting methods and to reinforce that parenting should be done on purpose and with purpose. Good parenting leads to stronger children, better communities and a healthier Utah.