Let Grow is working to ensure that parents who give their kids some reasonable independence are not treated as criminals. Here are three versions of a model law that Let Grow supports and is working to get passed.
You can review specific sections, or download the entire package as a PDF here.
Click here to find out what is happening in your state and to join our campaign.
DO WE REALLY NEED A FREE-RANGE PARENTING LAW OR LET GROW PROCLAMATION?
HERE’S WHY: Good, caring parents are getting arrested for giving their kids – by choice or by necessity – a bit of freedom.
Mom Kari Anne Roy’s 6-year-old was playing outside for about 10 minutes when a woman saw him and marched him home, 150 feet away. Shortly afterward, Roy’s doorbell rang again. It was the police. They interrogated her and asked for I.D. A week later, Child Protective Services came to the house and interviewed each of Roy’s three children separately, without their parents, asking the 12-year-old if he had ever done drugs, and the 8-year-old girl if she had seen movies with people’s private parts – something she’d never even heard of.
For three days over summer vacation in 2014, Debra Harrell let her 9-year-old play at the popular local sprinkler playground while she worked her shift at McDonald’s nearby. A woman at the park asked the girl where her mom was, and upon learning she was at work, called 911. The police threw the mom in jail overnight. She lost custody of her daughter for 17 days. Despite public outcry, it took over two years before the charges were dropped.
Natasha Felix was cited for neglect after she let three children, aged 5, 9, and 11, play in the park next to her home, where she could see them from her window. She checked on them every 10 minutes, but a passerby thought the kids were unsupervised, and called the Department of Children and Family Services Hotline. “These were not kids being left in a crack house with no food,” said Felix’s attorney, Diane Redleaf, a lawyer and director of the Chicago-based Family Defense Center. It took two years but a state appellate court finally overturned the finding of neglect against Natasha.
Even if it hasn’t happened in your area, no decent parent should have to second-guess how they are raising their kids.
AREN’T KIDS IN DANGER IF THEY’RE EVER ON THEIR OWN?
- “There’s Never Been a Safer Time to Be a Kid in America,” The Washington Post.
- Crime is back to the level it was when gas cost 29 cents a gallon, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
- “Crime has dropped precipitously in the last quarter-century” (1990-2016), according to The Brennan Center for Justice, NYU.
- FBI stats show, since 1993
- Violent crime down by 48%
- Homicides down by 50%
- Forcible rape down by 34.5%
The problem isn’t that America is more dangerous. It’s that it FEELS more dangerous, thanks to the media. For example, homicides in New York City decreased by 87% from 1990 to 2017, according to The New York Times. By contrast, newspapers devote 30% of their coverage to crime reporting.
The media alters our perception of crime. Psychologists call it the backfire effect: The more we are exposed to an event, the more we believe it will happen. We are over-exposed to stories of rare and random stranger-danger.
AMERICA’S DECLINING CRIME RATE
REASON 1: KIDS NEED INDEPENDENCE
Good parents help their kids gain the skills and confidence they’ll need to make their way. This is something parents can only do by loving and advising their children, while also gradually loosening the reins. That way kids get used to dealing with some bumps on the road.
As they enter college or the job world, young people need to be flexible, creative problem-solvers. They can’t learn how to solve problems if adults are always right there, solving them first.
In short: Kids need some old-fashioned freedom to explore, goof up, get lost, get brave, and become part of the world. Parents can’t give them this freedom if they’re worried it could be considered “negligence.” A Free-Range Law or Let Grow Proclamation reassures parents that “blatantly disregarding the safety and welfare of your children” is against the law. “Preparing your child for the path” is not.
- Without Some Risk, Fear and Excitement, Children’s Emotional Development Can be Stunted, Prof. Mariana Brussoni, The Conversation
- Why So Many Kids Can’t Sit Still in School Today, Valerie Strauss, The Washington Post
- How Children Lost the Right to Roam in 4 Generations, David Derbyshire, Daily Mail (This is an extremely affecting article)
REASON 2: A LACK OF INDEPENDENCE IS MAKING KIDS ANXIOUS AND DEPRESSED
Beginning in the 1980s, American childhood changed. For a variety of reasons—including shifts in parenting norms, new academic expectations, technological advances, and especially a heightened fear of abduction (missing kids on milk cartons made it feel as if this exceedingly rare crime was rampant) — children largely lost the experience of having large swaths of unsupervised time to play, explore, and resolve conflicts on their own. This has left them more fragile and less resilient.
The numbers bear this out. Julie Lythcott-Haims, former dean of freshmen at Stanford, says, “Recent Studies suggest that kids with…rigidly structured childhoods suffer psychological blowback in college.” A UCLA study on teen anxiety found that last year 41% of incoming freshmen at UCLA felt “overwhelmed,” compared to 29% in 2010 — less than 10 years earlier. Meantime, there has been a doubling of hospital admissions for suicidal teenagers over the last 10 years.
Childhood anxiety and depression have been steadily rising for the past half century, as kids have come to feel less and less in control of their lives. They are mostly in supervised, structured activities, run by adults. This has deprived them of developing an “internal locus of control.”
“Without an internal locus of control you feel like you are a victim of circumstances and powerful others, rather than someone who can handle your own problems, or deal with disputes.” — Boston College Prof. Peter Gray
To restore childhood resilience and fight a rising tide of depression, anxiety and even youth suicide, we must give children back some time to play, walk, explore and be on their own. This is impossible if a child walking to school can be reported as “neglected,” opening a case against his parents.
REASON 3: THE MORAL CASE FOR A FREE-RANGE PARENTING LAW OR LET GROW PROCLAMATION
People have a right to freedom, and children are people. Childhood is a significant fraction of a person’s life and to deprive them of freedom year after year can only be justified if it is absolutely essential for their future well being.
There is no evidence that the level of control overprotective parents or institutions are exercising over children is essential for their future well-being, and without such evidence we must defer to giving them more freedom. Society must stop thinking of the rights of children as dispensable, just as it used to for women and minorities.
Kids should have the right to play in a park, organize their own games and spend some time on their own. And if their parents are busy and need the kids to come home with a latchkey, or entertain themselves, this is not something new or automatically dangerous. Historically, children have not been supervised every moment by adults.
Giving kids some unstructured, unsupervised time at an age their parents feel appropriate helps them become healthier and happier, physically and mentally. Kids playing outside, walking to school or running errands on their own are learning responsibility, decision-making and resourcefulness.
Exposing kids to manageable, independent experiences helps them to become more resilient adults, according to the Harvard Center on the Developing Child. It prepares them to be self-reliant by meeting people outside their home, and developing new problem-solving skills.
Being forced to hamper this natural development because of an inflated sense of danger on the part of the authorities hurts families.
REASON 4: CPS BENEFITS FROM CLARIFICATION OF “NEGLECT”
Child Protective Services departments are stretched thin — so thin that in California, for instance, half of all case workers quit their jobs within three years, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. “It doesn’t matter how many people CPS hires,” Sandra Cambre, a CPS caseworker for eight years, told the paper, “because they burn out.”
The best way to keep social workers on the job is by making sure they spend their time investigating cases worth focusing on. This is also the best way to make sure that children who really need help are taken care of.
For this reason, a number of social workers strongly support the bill. Dianore Moore, director of the Utah Division of Child and Family Services, stated: “We want kids to be kids and parents to be parents. We want kids to experience life. We want kids to have independent skills.” She says the bill codifies common sense. Absent indications of abuse or neglect, she says, the agency does not wish to interfere when parents give children some autonomy. Protective services are meant to support children, not to replace parents.
Diane Redleaf, a Stanford-trained lawyer and founder of Illinois’ Family Defense Center, strongly supports the law too. “Millions of parents — including middle class parents — fear the heavy hand of the state. They won’t let their kids play outside anymore. This is the worst sort of helicopter parenting, because it is parenting based on fear,” she said, adding that, “The Utah law is an excellent first step in the direction of creating a better system for everyone.”
REASON 5: THE FREE-RANGE PARENTING LAW AND LET GROW PROCLAMATION HELP WORKING FAMILIES
When helicopter parenting becomes the only legal way to parent, we all lose—those who choose to give our kids some independence and those who, because of necessity, must. No decent parent, rich or poor, should be second-guessed by the state.
For instance, South Carolina mom Debra Harrell had been thrown in jail for a night and had her child taken away for 17 days, simply because she let the girl play in the sprinkler park while she worked her shift at McDonald’s nearby.
How dare a hardworking mom who has made a rational, loving parenting decision be treated as a criminal? Judging from the outcry, most of America felt the same outrage.
The Free-Range Law gives moms like Harrell a legal standard to point to: In Utah, at least, it is not considered “neglect” to let your kids play outside alone for whatever reason, including mom working.
The Utah law would also have helped a middle-class family, the Meitivs of Maryland, when they were accused of neglect for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home from the park on their own.
This across-the-board benefit is appreciated by Joyce McMillan, head of the Child Welfare Organizing Project in New York City, a non-profit that works to keep families intact. McMillan was galvanized as a young mom when her infant daughter was taken from her for almost two years. As she said in The Atlantic about the new law, “They call it ‘Free-Range Parenting.’ I call it ‘The rights of parents.’”
As Dr. Brandon Logan, executive director of 2INgage, an agency charged with overseeing foster care in 30 Texas counties, has pointed out, defining neglect as “blatant disregard for a child’s safety and welfare” helps the Debra Harrells of the world as well as the Meitivs in Maryland.
THERE IS BROAD, BI-PARTISAN SUPPORT FOR THIS KIND OF POLICY
We believe that parents have the best sense of how to teach responsibility to their children. – Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, The Hill
This is wonderful news; could be a turning point in America’s long slide into oversupervision of kids.. – NYU Prof. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind, on Twitter
Kids who avoid fearful situations don’t have the opportunity to face their fears and don’t learn that their fears are manageable. – Dr. Stephen Whiteside, Pediatric Psychologist, Mayo Clinic
This bill is exactly right. – Meghan Leahy, Washington Post parenting columnist, on NPR
Vague statutes that criminalize child “neglect” or “endangerment” undermine the social legitimacy of parental autonomy. And they ignore the reality that almost every decision a parent makes involves risks. Let your child ride a bike to school, or strap her into a car for the trip? Which child is more at risk, the sedentary one playing video games and risking obesity, or the one riding a bike? – George Will, newspaper columnist
The legislative approval of “free-range parenting” serves as a symbolic reminder that children deserve some degree of autonomy and that they learn best through exploration. The essence of “free-range parenting” is to create space for such exploration and learning to occur. The new law also emphasizes the need to de-stigmatize different parenting methods and to reinforce that parenting should be done on purpose and with purpose. Good parenting leads to stronger children, better communities and a healthier Utah. – Editorial, The Deseret News
Nevada lawmakers should follow the lead of our neighbors to the east and pass their own version of the Free-Range Kids Bill. – Editorial, Las Vegas Review Journal
It’s frustrating to think we need to pass new laws to save traditional parent-child relationships. But Utah’s first-in-the-nation “free-range children” law makes a strong case for that kind of drastic action. – Editorial, The Orange County (Calif.) Register
It’s hard to know when to allow your child additional freedoms, but we should err on the side of parents’ judgment. – Brian O’Neill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There’s value in learning independence, experiencing free play unfettered from the constraints of organized sports, and existing outside among others in a world where humans are increasingly tethered to devices that connect us all but steal our attention. And there’s value in letting caring, healthy and responsible families operate in their own ways, free from judgment. – Don Smith, (The West Virginia) Herald Dispatch
In most neighborhoods, you might think kids have been sucked up by UFOs. — Chris Churchill, Albany Times-Union
SAFETY MYTH VS. REALITY
MYTH:Driving your child to school is safer than letting them walk.
REALITY:Actually, the #1 way kids die in America is as car passengers.
MYTH: It’s common for kids to get snatched and killed by strangers.
REALITY: In 2011 (the latest data available), there were 9 such deaths. The vast majority of crimes against children are committed by people they know.
MYTH: Kids are getting taken from their parents and sex trafficked from stores like Ikea and Target.
REALITY: The head of the Crimes Against Children Research Center, David Finkelhor, knows of no such kidnappings.
MYTH: Kids waiting in cars during errands are likely to die.
REALITY: More children die crossing parking lots than waiting in parked cars. Kids are in danger when they are forgotten in cars, not when they are waiting there during a brief errand.
MYTH: It used to be safe for kids to walk or play outside, but not anymore.
REALITY: Crime is back to the rate it was in 1963. And it’s not down because of “helicopter parenting.” Crime is down against adults, too — and we don’t “helicopter” them.
DR. PETER GRAY’S TESTIMONY IN FAVOR OF A FREE-RANGE PARENTING BILL:
My name is Peter Gray. I am a resident of Millis, MA, and a research professor of developmental psychology at Boston College.
My research focuses on the developmental value of children’s free play. In my book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, and in various academic articles, I have described and documented the ways by which free outdoor play promotes children’s social, emotional, and intellectual development as well as physical development. The research shows that children play more vigorously, more socially, more imaginatively, and for longer periods—and gain more–when they play with other children away from adult control or intervention than when adults are present. When children play independently of adults they learn how to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and enforce rules, negotiate differences, and maintain the peace and order necessary for the play to proceed. These are extraordinarily important skills, which cannot be taught but can only be learned through experience, and the best experience for learning these skills comes from play with other children, away from adults.
Until very recent times, during all of human history with the exception of times of child slavery or intense child labor, children always spent enormous amounts of time playing and exploring with other children away from adults. Natural selection has endowed children with the drive for such play and adventure and with the capacity to develop valuable life skills through these means.
Over the past few decades, various shifts in our culture have worked against children’s freedom to occupy public spaces and play independently of adults. There has been an enormous decline in children’s freedom not just to play independently outdoors, but also to travel independently to school, friends’ homes, shops, and elsewhere. Even young teenagers today are regularly denied the freedoms that children as young as five or six years old enjoyed just a few decades ago. As a culture, we have developed the misguided assumptions that children are in great danger outdoors when not watched by adults and that children gain more when they are guided and controlled by adults than when they are free and must control themselves.
Over the same decades that children’s freedom has continuously declined, children’s mental health has also continuously declined. The best evidence for this comes from analyses of scores on clinical questionnaires that have been given in unchanged form to normative groups of young people over the decades. These data indicate, for example, that rates today of what are now called Major Depressive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder among young people are roughly 8 times what they were several decades ago, when children were freer. Data from the CDC indicate that the suicide rate among school-aged children is now roughly six times what it was several decades ago. Still other research shows that children today have much less of a sense of control over their own lives—are more likely to consider themselves to be victims of fate or powerful other people and less likely to think they can solve their own problems—than was true in the past.
All of these indices of psychopathology have been rising steadily over the same period in which children’s freedom has been declining steadily. I present these data—and describe the reasons for inferring a strong causal link between the decline of freedom and rise of psychopathology–in my book Free to Learn and in an academic article entitled The Decline of Play and Rise of Psychopathology in Childhood and Adolescence, published in the American Journal of Play (Vol. 3, pp 443-463, 2011). The article can be found online here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/files/attachments/1195/ajp-decline-play-published.pdf
You can also see my TEDx talk on this issue here.
There are many impediments to children’s going outdoors to play and explore in our society today, but one of the most significant of them is parents’ fear that they (the parents) will be charged with neglect if their children are found outdoors unaccompanied by an adult. I have heard this from many parents. The parents tell me that they know how mature their children are and how safe the neighborhood is, but, because of fear of others’ judgments and possible legal action against them they do not allow their children the freedom that they know their children can handle and that they know would be best for their children’s development. I strongly support legislation that will reduce this fear on the part of parents and thereby help restore the freedom that children need for their healthy development.
Thank you for your kind attention to this testimony.
Research Professor of Psychology at Boston College.
LAW OR PROCLAMATION: WHICH ONE MAKES MORE SENSE FOR YOU?
Does your state, county, city or town need a Free-Range Parenting law?
Some do, some don’t.
Some states already have laws and rulings that protect a parent’s right to let their children have a reasonable amount of independence. And some states have judges who have interpreted ambiguous laws in ways that do that, too.
But then there are also bad laws and bad rulings.
Let Grow supports changing laws and rulings that punish parents for giving their kids some reasonable independence. But sometimes the law isn’t the problem. Sometimes it could be a specific rule, policy, or practice that can be changed without the formal process that’s needed to change laws. Sometimes all that is needed is a local Let Grow Proclamation, wherein your town or country endorses the idea of kids out and about with direct supervision.
How can you tell whether your community would benefit from a Free-Range Parenting Law or Proclamation? Here are some questions to consider:
- Have you seen that reasonable parenting decisions are respected under your state’s law?
- Or are there stories in your community about parents being stopped for giving their kids normal independence?
- Are parents assisted in getting child care resources if they need help for caring for their kids?
- If you call your local police station to ask whether you can let your child stay home alone, do you get an answer you find reassuring?
- Are the police and Child Protective Services agencies in your community responding often to hotline calls about children who play outside or are left for a few minutes in cars? Do these authorities agree that they have better things to do? (Let Grow looks for allies who work for law enforcement and CPS: they do have better things to do than investigate reasonable parents who are giving their children a safe and normal childhood).
- Are there child and family advocates in your community who support the effort to make it safe, normal and legal to give children some reasonable independence?
- Is there a specific policy, in writing, or a common practice that troubles you?
A new law not or may not be the answer. A Proclamation may. Please contact Let Grow ([email protected]) if you would like to discuss which option makes more sense. It is time to change the policies that are making parents afraid to let go and let grow!