We appreciate GUIDELINES that recognize child development, but actual age limits can hurt good families.
A few years back, after the first “Free-Range Parenting” law passed in Utah — a great day for childhood independence — we received a query from a lawmaker. Inspired, he wanted his state to pass a similar law ensuring parents that allowing their kids some freedom to play outside, stay home alone, walk to school, etc., would not be mistaken for neglect. And so, he said, he’d drafted a bill:
Parents are not to be investigated or accused of neglect simply for letting their children, age 10 and up, engage in independent childhood activities.
He expected us to be excited!
We were not.
In fact, as we gently explained, this was a law we could not endorse.
In the three years we’ve been advocating on this score, we often encounter well-intended people like that lawmaker who believe the right to childhood independence should be granted — but only to children above a certain age. Usually, the suggested age is much higher than we know many children could manage.
Because we firmly believe that parents know their own children best, and because the circumstances for giving independence vary wildly by the activity, the weather, the geography, the child’s preparation, whether the child is alone or with others, etc., etc., AND because all of these parameters can’t be laid out in a neat set of boundaries, we oppose legislating age limits in both laws and policies.
Now guidance? We’re for it. A list of ages explaining, in general, the ages kids are physically and cognitively capable of doing things on their own? That’s helpful. In fact, we’re working on one now — a guideline that can help parents judge for themselves when their children are ready to do things like cross the street alone, watch a younger sibling, or go camping for the weekend with a bunch of friends.
But that’s not putting actual age limits into law.
These are the many reasons we do not favor age limits written into law or policy:
- They inhibit both parents’ and child welfare professionals’ use of judgment.
- Age limits could too easily become a shorthand for an overtaxed child welfare professional, and can also be a way for a more distant decisionmaker (such as a judge, who only gets second- or third-hand information about the child) to insert their personal opinions on child upbringing in place of the parent’s.
- Age limits will force child welfare professionals to expend unnecessary time and resources in trying to make exceptions to a general rule when a child who is clearly safe is nonetheless the subject of a hotline call, and is below the age limit set for that activity.
- They will open child welfare professionals to charges of unequal application of the law.
- Age limits are arbitrary. To overgeneralize the point (of course there are exceptions!), a 9-year-old who is an only child is likely to have had quite different experiences from a 9-year-old with four younger siblings.
- An age limit of, say, 10, means that a 10-year-old could play outside — but not with her 6-year-old brother, if the law says 6-year-olds must always be supervised by an adult.
- At the same time, an age limit could, unfortunately, give a parent who truly is neglectful a free pass if their child was at or above the age limit but lacked sufficient maturity, physical condition, or mental ability for the independent activity the parent allowed. While age limits are proposed as a protection for children, in some cases they could be dangerous.
- Across the 50 states, there is no consistency in age limits. They range from age 6 (in Kansas) to age 14 (in Illinois, but read on—this one isn’t actually true!), with states like Michigan holding that children can’t be alone before the age of 11—on pain of criminal and neglect prosecutions for their parents. But to Let Grow’s knowledge, there is no evidence for concluding children in Kansas are more capable of independence than children in Michigan.
- According to this Washington Post article on “Latchkey Kids Age Restrictions By State,” only five states have adopted age mandates in statute, while 14 states (including those five) have a stated age policy. But even the five that are reported to have age mandates have had fundamental misunderstandings of the law. Specifically, while it has been widely reported that Illinois has a mandate of 14, this is a misunderstanding. Under Illinois law, 14 is the age after which parents cannot be prosecuted, not a milestone that children have to reach to be alone. This example shows that even something as “simple” as an age limit can be misinterpreted.
Age limits can harm parents AND child welfare workers
So while we have no objection to states providing guidance about age ranges, based on sound child development research, any legal age limit for childhood independence is likely to create a problem of over-inclusion of children who are capable of independence, and possible under-inclusion of children who are not yet able to exercise independence.
Let Grow sees age limits stated in statute or regulation as triple-edged swords that can harm parents, hinder child welfare professionals, and stunt children ready for some independence.
For more on this issue, please visit the Let Grow Advocacy Toolkit and click on “The Case Against Age Limits.” You will find a list of all 50 states’ age limits (at least as far as these can be determined) at the bottom.
Meantime, if you would like to get involved in making sure your state supports childhood independence, please fill out the form at the bottom of our toolkit!