Legislation and Public Policy Aimed at Restoring Childhood

Can free-range parenting laws and city proclamations help restore kids’ freedom?

Posted Aug 19, 2019

PNG Images.  Creative Commons
Freedom to go
Source: PNG Images. Creative Commons

Can laws and official public proclamations help to restore children’s rights to be children and parents’ rights to be parents? There is some evidence that they can.

This is the third article in my series on ways of restoring children’s outdoor play in our overprotective world. The first was about ways of overcoming parents’ fears of letting their children run free, and the second was about ways of creating places where children can find one another and play without adult interference. 

This one is about ways that legislation and public policy pronouncements can empower parents to allow more freedom for their children. More specifically, it’s about the value of state-legislated sanctions and city proclamations supporting children’s rights to roam and play independently in public spaces and parents’ rights to determine when their children are ready for such independence.

Utah’s “Free-Range Parenting Law”

In response to my survey of readers about how to restore children’s free outdoor play in today’s world—the survey that inspired this trio of essays—Jamie wrote: 

I would love to allow my child to roam free, but am terrified of the culture that has come to believe that any child left unsupervised is neglected. I applaud Utah for passing a 'Free-Range Parenting' law and hope more states will follow suit. I won't have my legal rights to my child in the hands of a nosy neighbor and a legal system that has become interested in punishing parents for giving their children some space, so for now, I stay close, but try to keep quiet so my kid can be creative.

On March 15, 2018, Utah’s governor Gary Herbert signed into law a bill aimed at empowering parents, not the state, to decide when and where children should be allowed to roam and play without direct adult supervision. The bill was inspired, in part, by Lenore Skenazy’s Free-Range Kids book and the work of the Let Grow nonprofit, of which Lenore is president and I am one of the founding board members. 

It is still possible for parents in Utah to be accused of negligence, but the new law ensures that the burden of proof in such cases is on the state to prove that the children were in serious danger.

In the words of state senator Lincoln Fillmore, the bill’s Senate sponsor (here): "What we've done with this bill is just define some specific things that neglect is not — like letting your kids play or walk to or from the park."

In the words of state Representative Brad Daw, the bill’s House sponsor (here): “The law says that you can’t just call authorities if you see a child playing alone in the park. It frees up authorities from investigating these nuisance calls while allowing them to focus on children who are actually being neglected."

And, in Governor Herbert’s words (here): “We believe that parents know and love their children better than anybody. We believe that absent evidence of neglect, danger, or cruelty, parents have the best sense of how to teach responsibility to their children. Responsible parents should be able to let kids be kids without constantly looking over their shoulders for approval.

It could be argued that Utah is one of the last states in the nation that actually needs such a law. Utah resident Krista Whipple wrote to me: “Free-range parenting is the norm here and has been since long before the law was passed... Utahans are fiercely protective of their individual freedoms and most would view government interference with their parenting choices as far more frightening than the minuscule possibility of harm coming to their children when playing outside.” 

She added, however, “That being said, coming from California where no such protections are in place, it gives me peace of mind knowing that I can let my kids have some freedom and responsibility without the fear of the potential consequences I may have faced in California where helicopter parenting is both socially and legally enforced.

Here are some other quotations from emails sent to me by parents in Utah.

Sarah (last name withheld) wrote about her children’s summer lemonade stand and her 12-year-old son’s traveling freely by bicycle and public transportation in the relatively large city where they live. She added, “I’m so grateful that the Free-Range Parenting law allows me to safely teach my children how to be independent and confident without worrying about the judgment of a person who has helicoptering tendencies.

Brannon Burton wrote:

Like a lot of parents with young kids these days, I was probably a bit overprotective. I worried about letting them walk to school, play at the park, or go trick or treating without an adult. As my children have gotten older, I’ve started to realize that they are missing out on critical experiences that I had as a kid. The ability to find their way around the neighborhood, the ability to problem-solve, and the ability to solve conflict on their own… Without these experiences, my wife and I have observed that our kids stress easily, get stifled by easy problems, and are easily frustrated. In an effort to fill these inadequacies, we felt it was important to allow our kids to go to the park on their own, wander the neighborhood, and play in a way that gave them the freedom to choose... When we heard about the 'Free-Range Parenting' law, we felt far more comfortable that we wouldn’t be held liable in the law’s eyes or the community’s eyes. It gave us the freedom to raise our kids in a manner that fits their needs, even if it carries more risk. To us, the risk of having less resilient kids outweighs the dangers of unsupervised play. We have taken full advantage of this law to promote independence with our kids. My wife and I have observed more confidence in our children, more resilience; they’re more assertive, and they aren’t as easily stifled by simple problems anymore.

Unschooling mom Emma Powell wrote:

We are new to Salt Lake from Austin, Texas, where we frequently had run-ins when our kids were outside playing (brought home by police when geocaching, etc., the officers were very forceful in demanding my children give their names and addresses while I was not present). The law was passed shortly after we moved to Utah, which was a huge relief. There are a lot of parks and stores nearby that my kids can enjoy using our family's agreed upon safety guides without fear of answering to police officers.

So, one way that you might help children and families in your state gain more freedom is to urge the creation and passing of a free-range parenting bill in your state. For policy information about doing so, see the Free-Range/Let Grow Policy Page on the Let Grow website, where you can find model legislation, crime graphs (showing how crime is going down, not up as so many believe), one-pagers on the moral and psychological reasons why kids need freedom, and a transcript of the testimony that I (Peter Gray) presented recently to support a Free-Range Parenting bill in Connecticut. 

So far, only Utah has enacted such a bill into law, but some movement toward such laws has occurred in Arkansas, Connecticut, Colorado, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas, and probably elsewhere as well.

Creation of Let-Grow Communities

Another route you might take to empower children and parents is to initiate a movement in your city or town to have it declared as a “Let-Grow” or “Free-Range” Community. You can find information on how to do this on the How to Create a Let Grow Community page of the Let Grow website. Two of the pioneers in this movement are Wilton, Connecticut, and Ithaca, New York. I’ll focus here on Ithaca, as it is the larger and more diverse of the two communities.

Ithaca became, officially, a “Free Range Kid City” on Nov. 7, 2018, when the mayor, Svante Myrick, declared it so. In this declaration, Myrick (here) said: “We believe in the power of play. Given the choice between living here, where your kids can run outside and find a bunch of friends to play with, and another city where just allowing your kids to walk home from the park could get you arrested, we know that families will joyfully choose Ithaca." 

Every movement starts with one or two or a handful of people who are dedicated to seeing it happen. In Wilton, it was the head of the Wilton Youth Council and some of the others on the Council. In Ithaca, it was people involved with the Just Play Project, founded by Rusty Keeler and Beth Myers. In both communities the initiators, as one part of their efforts, reached out to Let Grow with the result that Lenore Skenazy and I visited, shared our thoughts, and gave public talks about why children need more freedom than most currently have. 

Ultimately, the proclamations came about because the initiators were able to get the powers that be in their communities on board—those involved with the schools, police, children's services, parks and recreation, and so on.

Such proclamations have no direct legal implications, but are statements of intent that can affect all sorts of policy, such as how police respond to calls from someone reporting a loose child in the park or walking to school, or how city planners think about parks and sidewalks, or how the school board thinks about recess and after-school play on the school grounds.

Utah, Wilton, and Ithaca are charting a way. Now, can you help carry this nascent movement toward family freedom into your community?

And now, what do you think? Do you think that legislation and public proclamations can help reverse the terrible trend we have seen in recent decades toward, essentially, the imprisonment of children? (For a New York Times op-ed about how terrible the trend is, see here.) Have you seen evidence of this? What kinds of laws or policy statements would you support? 

Your thoughts, including disagreements, are valued and treated with respect by me and other readers. As always, I prefer if you post your thoughts and questions here rather than send them to me by private email. By putting them here, you share with other readers, not just with me. I read all comments and try to respond to all serious questions if I feel I have something useful to say.