Last month, Connecticut became the latest in a string of states to ratify a law giving America’s children greater independence — pushing back on decades of a wide-scale shift toward helicopter parenting.
On June 27, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont signed SB1133, which essentially allows parents to make the call as to whether their children are sufficiently mentally and physically mature enough to engage in certain activities by themselves. The legislation, which will take effect Oct. 1, will allow children increased freedom while also protecting parents from the likelihood of being accused of negligence. For example, a child might be able to walk alone to a friend’s house without their parents having to worry about the police showing up at their door.
Prior to this legislation, Connecticut “had a very punitive criminal law, which prevented children from being engaged in any kind of independent activities in … a public place,” said Diane Redleaf, a legal consultant for Let Grow, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increased childhood independence and that was instrumental in getting the legislation passed in Connecticut and numerous other states.
After the law takes effect, parents will be able to “make the decision to allow their children to be in public without constant supervision,” said Redleaf, who offered examples like walking to school or riding a bike alone — activities that used to be part and parcel of childhood for previous generations.
The bill got sweeping support from both sides of the political aisle, passing unanimously. In this age of increased political polarization, advocates say its success points to something a growing number of experts and American parents alike seem to agree upon: Our children are being suffocated, their growth stunted, by the culture of “helicopter” parenting, and parents are being burdened by policies and laws.
“The fact that this (law passed in) a solidly blue state just shows you that everybody is getting the message that parents don’t want to be micromanaged anymore,” said Lenore Skenazy, founder of Let Grow and the author of “Free-Range Kids.”
The Connecticut legislation is the latest in a string of state laws that started in Utah, allowing parents and children liberties that went unquestioned before the spread of helicopter parenting (named for the tendency of overprotective parents to hover).
In 2018, Utah was the first state in the nation to pass a child independence law. The move, which was controversial at the time, was widely referred to as a “free-range” parenting law by the media and it made international headlines.
In the wake of the debate around the law, Skenazy said her organization began to advocate for “reasonable childhood independence” laws.
“Sometimes people think free range means feral or you don’t care or nobody’s watching the kids,” she said. “But what we’re really talking about is parents — who know and love their kids — thinking that they’re ready for some independence and being allowed to give it to them without being second-guessed by the government.”
Skenazy pointed out that childhood independence laws don’t let parents who are actually putting their children in harm’s way off the hook. However, she emphasized, “Neglect is when you put your kid in obvious and serious danger, not anytime you take your eyes off of them.”
The years after Utah’s law was enacted saw similar legislation pass in Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado. But 2023 has been a particularly active year for the passage of childhood independence laws, with four states approving such legislation: Virginia, Montana, Connecticut and Illinois.
Today, the work brings together seemingly strange bedfellows, uniting people on the right who advocate for parents’ rights and those on the left who work on behalf of impoverished and marginalized minority communities.
Nationwide, 70% of calls to governmental bodies like Child Protective Services are reports of neglect, said Valerie L’Herrou, deputy director of the Center for Family Advocacy at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which helped work for the childhood independence law in that state. The law, which was signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin in March, went into effect July 1.
Eighty-five percent of families that are investigated for neglect are low-income, according to Penn State’s Social Science Institute.
“But if you peek under the hood of neglect a lot of times, what you’re really seeing is a lack of access to resources,” said L’Herrou, who said that she started walking to school alone at the age of 5. “It’s a double whammy to low-income families and families of color: We don’t give them access to resources to properly support their families, and when they struggle to support their families, we basically come in and are punitive towards them.”
How did we get here?
The existence of childhood independence laws begs the question: how did we get here in the first place? How did activities that were so normal for previous generations — walking to school, going to a neighborhood store to buy a snack or playing in the front yard alone — become cause for alarm?
It was, as Skenazy put it, a “cultural tsunami” that turned Americans’ idea of childhood into a time of immense danger, rather than a normal developmental stage. As such, parents became relentless protectors who must supervise their children at all times — and if they didn’t, the government was there to step in.
The media was partly to blame, said Skenazy, by publicizing isolated incidents of kidnappings without making clear that a majority of such incidents involve custody battles.
And policy changes reinforced the idea that children can’t do things alone, she said, offering the example of school districts who won’t let a child get off the school bus without someone waiting to escort them home.
Amtrak, she noted, used to let children 8 and older travel by themselves; now the age is 13.
Policies like this undermine the ideas that kids can be competent and that most adults are good people, Skenazy said. “And so you always had to either be with your child yourself, or have somebody there by proxy, watching over your kids.”
Where do we go from here?
Changing the laws is one step but laws aren’t enough, childhood independence advocates say. They believe we need a cultural shift that stops people from calling the authorities every time they see a child outside alone, one that encourages concerned onlookers to talk to parents about their concern instead.
“These laws are just to press the reset button on the idea that kids do not need constant supervision until they go off to college,” said Skenazy, who noted that parallel to the rise in helicopter parenting came a decline in children’s mental health.
In recent decades, rates of depression and anxiety in children have skyrocketed; psychologists and other researchers believe that the decline in children’s independence is likely a contributing factor. “There’s a lot of criticism of helicopter parents,” said L’Herrou. “But basically the law forces parents to be helicopter parents, and then that results in kids getting out into the world on their own and having to make independent decisions for the first time and having a lot of anxiety.”
But embedded in the problem is the remedy — research has shown that getting children to do things on their own reduces anxiety, said Skenazy, who pointed to the work of clinical psychologist Camilo Ortiz, a professor at Long Island University who takes an unconventional approach to treating children’s anxiety. He doesn’t have them face a particular specific fear head-on; rather, he simply has kids do things alone.
“This is not a traditional anxiety treatment,” Ortiz told the California radio station KQED. “My approach is something like: So you’re afraid of the dark? Go to the deli and buy me some salami.”
In a similar spirit, Let Grow has two different programs to help promote childhood independence. The Let Grow Project offers teachers a downloadable homework assignment that has children do something on their own, without adult supervision. And the organization advocates for schools to organize Let Grow play groups, which would take place after hours and bring children of a range of ages together for unstructured, screen-free play time.
Not only would children benefit from more unstructured, mixed-age play, increasing our kids’ independence also gives adults the gift of watching their children bloom into resilient, independent beings who will be able to handle the adversities and challenges that come with life.
Skenazy asks people to “think back on their childhood ... to their happiest memories.”
“Was your mother with you?” she asks. “So how does independence benefit kids? Well, without it, kids are going crazy.”