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Meet the author of Utah's free-range parenting bill

SALT LAKE CITY — When he was 12 years old, Lincoln Fillmore hopped in the driver’s seat of a four-wheeler a bunch of friends were messing around with in a vacant lot in his Taylorsville neighborhood and “drove the stupid thing into a concrete wall,” breaking his arm.

He’s not glad that happened.

But he wouldn’t go back and change it, even if he could.

“You have to have skinned knees to know how not to have skinned knees,” he says — or, in his case, a broken arm.

Meet the man who wrote the law that woke up the nation.

Bigger, fatter, more consequential bills were passed in the most recent session of the Utah Legislature, but few attracted more attention than SB65, the so-called free-range parenting legislation that states that it is NOT illegal to let your kids walk to school on their own, leave them in the car while you run into the dry cleaners, send them to the mall or the park without adult supervision and/or engage in other similar activities.

“We wanted to say that those things do not by themselves constitute neglect. What our bill does is it just changes the definition of neglect, so it amends out certain activities.”

Lincoln insists his intent is not to tell people how to raise their kids. The 43-year-old Republican state senator from South Jordan is in the process of trying to figure that out himself. He and his wife, Cheryl, have a 3-year-old son, Niko, with another child due in May. His kids haven’t even hit the free-range stage yet.

“I don’t want the law to make it seem like I’m saying this style of parenting is the approved one,” he says. “I just want to make sure that parents who subscribe to that sort of parenting philosophy are not criminals; that they don’t have to deal with the heavy hand of government coming in and arresting them or taking their kids away, which sounds draconian but has actually happened dozens of times in this country.”

A year ago, in the waning days of the 2017 legislative session, it was while reading news accounts of parents being subjected to just such prosecution that led to Fillmore thinking: Let’s not let that happen in Utah.

Well before the 2018 Legislature opened, he lobbied fellow politicians for support, as well as the Utah Division of Child and Family Service.

Whatever he said worked. The bill passed the House 66-0 and the Senate 25-0. Vladimir Putin gets more opposition than SB65.

Fillmore was pleasantly surprised by the unanimous vote. Even more, he was surprised by the national response — the story was covered by everything from Yahoo to the New York Times; Lincoln was on “Good Morning America” — and especially by the “overwhelming positive” reaction.

“I thought there might be more opposition,” he says, adding, “I’m surprised at how newsworthy this is and that Utah is the first one (to pass such a bill).”

The deeper motivation for Fillmore’s bill lies in his own childhood. Like so many parents in the 1970s and 1980s, Wade and Joanne Fillmore were diligent and dutiful about raising their kids, but they used a very long leash.

“You knew your parents were around but not around,” he says. “We got to explore. We learned how the world worked by being in the world. It was a blast. If we got hurt we’d go home and get stitched up, but we didn’t have hovering parents or adults that were out there making sure we didn’t skin a knee.

“We had to be back by dinner. If we’d go out later we just had to be back by dark. When it was dark, Mom would come out and shout, ‘Hey Lincoln, it’s time to come back in.’”

Lincoln finds it ironic that as crime has declined to historic lows (“the facts bear that out”), parenting has become more protective, not less. “Society has changed in some good ways, but also it has become overprotective to the point where we don’t allow kids to explore and wonder and discover and learn the skills they need to be successful. That’s just my opinion.”

Apparently, he’s not alone.

“The most common response I’ve got is, ‘I can’t believe this is necessary,’” he says. He’s since been contacted by legislators in other states who are thinking of replicating what he’s done in Utah.

The coup de grace came from a lawmaker in San Francisco, undoubtedly a liberal Democrat, who wrote on Twitter: “Senator Fillmore and I probably agree on nothing, but I’m so glad he did this.”