What a day in Hartford!
Three state legislators and five experts (including me) testified in favor of a "Free-Range Parenting" bill at a public hearing held by the Connecticut State Legislature's Committee on Children -- and many more did so with written testimony. You can find it all here. It is outrageously inspiring. Look for S.B. (Senate Bill) 806: An Act Prohibiting a Finding of Neglect in Certain Circumstances.
Rep. Gail Lavielle (R), Rep. Tom O'Dea (R), and Sen. Will Haskell (D) spoke passionately about the need for children to have some independence. O'Dea recalled the day his son, then about 9, forgot his football helmet at practice. He made the boy ride his bike half a mile to retrieve it. His wife was a little taken aback, O'Dea admits. "But did my son forget his helmet again? Never."
The bill would ensure it is NOT considered neglect for a parent or caregiver to let their kids walk or play outside, unsupervised.
DEPRESSED AND ANXIOUS KIDS
The legislators were joined by Colleen Fawcett, a licensed clinical social worker who, among other things, has been coordinator of Youth Service for the town of Wilton, CT, for 25 years. Lately, she says, she has seen a "dramatic" increase in anxiety and depression among young people -- including five kids in the past six months, ages 18, 16, 13, 11 and 8 -- with "suicidal gestures" (considered more serious than threats).
If not treated effectively, those kids may turn to self-medication or addiction, Fawcett said. "But prevention and early intervention work. Free play is both."
TOO MUCH PROTECTION
Dr. Peter Gray also spoke of the power of free play. When kids are allowed to play and explore away from adults, they learn to get along, deal with risk, overcome frustration and develop resilience, he said. "When we 'protect' children from all that, we 'protect' them from growing up."
Sen. Mary Abrams nodded, saying, "They do need some time away from adults to make decisions." Calling herself a "Free-Range mom," Rep. Liz Linehan nodded as well.
Wilton's Superintendent of Schools, Kevin J. Smith, added that to thrive, kids need "exactly the opportunities most of us 40 and older experienced." But even parents who WANT those for their kids "express legitimate worries" about being investigated.
This is not due to an increase in crime, which is at a 50-year low, Smith said. It is due to the radical, recent belief that an unsupervised kid is automatically in danger.
Other eras did not think this way, and neither do other countries today, Vanessa Hoffman Elias, President of the Board of Directors of the Wilton Youth Council, told the committee. (Have you guessed that Wilton is a very Let Grow town?) "I have raised my children in Utah, Connecticut, London, England and Zurich," said Elias. In Switzerland, not only do children walk to school from a young age, parents are strongly discouraged from walking with them.
In America it has become so normal to do things like stand next to kids at the bus stop that gradually "helicopter parenting" has acquired the patina of law. We've all heard of parents who have been arrested or investigated for letting their kids walk home from the park, or take the dog for a walk.
Connecticut's SB806 "won't magically solve the problem," Dr. Gray admitted. "But I've spoken to parents who say, 'I know my kid is ready [for some independence], but I'm afraid to do what I, as a parent, think is best."
Actually, said Sen. Abrams, "Laws have changed the culture. Think in terms of things like smoking indoors." Once it was normal. Now it's not.
Right now, forbidding kids to walk and play outside unsupervised seems normal.
But thanks to states re-visiting their neglect laws -- including South Carolina, Arkansas and Texas -- soon this may seem as strange as it would have in the '80s. - L.
Pictured: Dr. Peter Gray addresses the Connecticut State Legislature's Children's Committee.