Why kids and parents in Utah are luckier than the rest of us

Why kids and parents in Utah are luckier than the rest of us

 

This may sound strange to young people today, but when I was growing up my stay-at-home mom actually stayed at home.

She didn't walk me to school. Didn't drive me to my piano lessons a few blocks away. She didn't come with me on playdates, because we didn’t have "playdates." We just knocked on our friends' doors and if they were home, they came out and we played, usually till the streetlights came on. And get this:

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No one arrested my mom.

 

A bill just signed into law in Utah is an attempt to give some of that freedom back to both generations: kids who deserve some lovely, on-their-own, kick-around, climb-a-tree time; and parents who deserve the same — or at least some time not spent driving their kids from Kumon to karate to clarinet.

Utah’s SB65, sponsored by State Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, redefines "neglect" to make sure it does NOT include “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.”

These wild and crazy activities include walking to school, running errands, playing outside, waiting briefly in a car (under certain circumstances), and even coming home with a latchkey.

In short, the bill codifies the law I have long been proposing — but mine was shorter,“Our kids have the right to some unsupervised time, and we have the right to give it to them without getting arrested.”

You see, I’m the founder of Free-Range Kids (which now has a board and a budget and has become the non-profit Let Grow). Almost exactly 10 years ago I let my 9-year-old ride the subway alone in New York City, where I live. I wrote a column about it and two days later I was on The Today Show, MSNBC, Fox News and (for contrast) NPR, defending my decision to let my son do something on his own.

I founded the Free-Range Kids blog that weekend, stating that our kids are not in constant danger from “creeps, kidnapping, germs, grades, flashers, frustration, failure, baby snatchers, bugs, bullies, men, sleepovers and/or the perils of a non-organic grape.”

But in a society that feasts on fear, some people believe they are. In fact, some people believe that anytime a mom (or dad) lets her kids out of her sight, she's putting them in harm’s way. This delusion – defined by the fact we are at a 50-year crime low — is so common in our culture that it has seeped into law. And so I started hearing from parents who wanted to give their kids an old-fashioned childhood only to find themselves second-guessed, sometimes by the authorities.

The most famous of these cases is surely the Meitivs’ of Maryland: Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were investigated not once but twice for the “crime” of letting their kids, then 10 and 6, walk home from the park in Silver Spring.

Eventually they were acquitted of all charges, but what parent wants to go through that? While such an ordeal is rare enough that it makes headlines, why should any parents have to worry that letting their kid pick up the cupcakes from the bakery could open a can of bureaucratic worms?

After publicizing several cases of a parents arrested for letting their kids play at the park, walk to school, or wait in the car a few minutes, I realized that to be a parent like my mom was — old-fashioned but not overprotective — you have to have the law on your side.

Some lawmakers listened.

In 2015, Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeGOP moderates hint at smooth confirmation ahead for Kavanaugh GOP senators introduce resolution endorsing ICE GOP senator moves to restart Pentagon report on NATO allies' spending MORE (R-Utah) added a Free-Range amendment to the Every Child Succeeds act. It said that parents can decide how they want their kids to get to school —by car, foot or bike. But he added that states have the right to override that provision. So Sen. Fillmore decided to bake common sense into his state's legal code.

The Utah law does not de-fang child protective services or the police. It does not give a free pass to abusers. Anyone harming, drugging, starving or neglecting a child will still be dealt with by the authorities. And in fact this law gives the authorities more time to do that, because now when a busybody calls 911 and says, “I just saw a 7-year-old playing at the park!" the cop or child protection worker can say, "How nice!" and hang up.

Or, of course, they are welcome to check in on the kid and if he’s fine — that’s it. Keep playing, kid.

Which is exactly what our kids need to do. Increasingly, American children are anxious and depressed. You'd be too if you couldn't do anything on your own, even walk home from the office. In keeping our kids safe from hypothetical dangers, we have made them less safe when it comes to real dangers like loneliness, obesity and diabetes. We have taken away their inalienable right to get lost, grow brave, have adventures and grow up. They are like bonsai trees: beautiful, but stunted. They cannot survive without constant care.

Many parents sense that something is wrong. They want to give their kids at least a taste of their own childhood.

In Utah, now, they can.

The rest of America deserves the same right. A federal Free-Range Kids Law makes sense. And did I mention that the Utah law passed both houses unanimously? It's a crowd pleaser because it gives our kids the thing we all loved most at their age. The thing we love most, period. The thing that used to define this country of ours, as well as childhood.

Freedom.

Lenore Skenazy is president of the new non-profit Let Grow and founder of Free-Range Kids.