On February 12, my nine-year-old son, Blaise, and I found our way to the Gressette Building on our State Capitol grounds. We had to pass through a metal detector. We had an 11:00 meeting with State Senator Vince Sheheen, the sponsor of the bill we were about to speak in favor of. He was very kind to Blaise, asking him why he supported the free range parenting bill, what he thought about it, and why it was important.
Later that day, he and I walked into the meeting room of for the South Carolina Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing. There, Blaise stood up and gave an impassioned speech about how important he felt the state’s pending free range parenting bill was.
“I’m worried Mama and Daddy will get arrested and have to pay fines, too,” he told a panel of 20 state senators and at least 50 onlookers. He talked about how he and his little brothers like to catch lizards and toads in the front yard, and worry that neighbors will call the police if I’m not out there with them. They like to ride their bikes there, too, and would like more freedom. He says that playing outside is “really boring and not as much fun without my brothers.”
Right now, according to Let Grow, an activist organization founded by Free Range Kids guru Lenore Skenazy that seeks to “counter the culture of overprotection” of children, there are free range parenting bills currently pending in Texas, Connecticut, South Carolina, Oregon, and Arkansas, with one being considered in Delaware. That’s in addition to the one already passed in Utah.
These laws are generally passed by amending what constitutes parental neglect. That’s how it worked in Utah, and that’s the route South Carolina’s taking. According to The New York Times, the Utah law states that “neglect 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’ such as going to and from school by walking, running or bicycling, going to nearby stores or recreational facilities and playing outside.'”
The pending South Carolina bill includes language that would permit children to stay home alone as long as they had a means to reach a caregiver and the responsible caregiver returned home the same day. It has been referred over to the state’s House of Representatives for consideration.
These bills are desperately important. They’re important to me, and they’re important to other parents, who may want to allow their children more independence, but who are afraid to. As Lenore Skenazy, author of the book Free Range Kids and once dubbed “The Worst Mom in America” for letting her 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone, told Scary Mommy, “I hear from so many parents who say, ‘I’d love to let my kid walk to the park, but I’m afraid. Not of predators! Of someone calling 911 because they think my child is neglected.’ A Free-Range Parenting law removes that fear. It means that parents who, by choice or necessity, give their kids some unsupervised time [ to play and explore] know that this will not be mistaken for negligence.”
Diane Redleaf, the Founder, Executive Director, and Legal Director, for the Family Defense Center, and author of They Took the Kids Last Night: How the Child Protection System Puts Families At Risk, agrees. She told Scary Mommy, “Free range laws are especially important because they give reassurance to parents who want to give their children reasonable independence–the chance to let grow–that they can do so without fear of being labeled a criminal, a child abuser or neglector or a bad parent. Free range laws give a legal and societal stamp of approval to good parenting and the rights of kids to have a normal childhood.”
These laws assure parents that when they let their kids walk to the store, bike to school, play in the yard, or stay home alone for short periods, what they’re doing is normal and acceptable. It gives these things a societal stamp of approval. It says that the state itself will not promote helicopter parenting, and that children deserve a childhood free of parents hovering, micro-managing all the time.
But these laws do something else important. As Redleaf says, “These laws also stop some of the abuses we read about all the time in which police and CPS are stopping children from playing in parks, walking the dog, running upstairs in an office building to meet a parent or walking to school.” All of these have happened recently — while most have been in the news, some have only been reported to Let Grow or Free Range Kids. In these cases, CPS wastes valuable time and resources investigating decent, loving parents, when they should be spending their time taking care of cases that actually constitute child neglect and abuse.
There’s a stream 100 yards from my house, on public property. I can’t let my kids look for salamanders there, even though I trust them and feel comfortable doing so, because I’m afraid of the police.
There’s a store 200 yards from my house. I can’t let my kids walk there, even though I’m comfortable with them going out on their own, because I’m afraid someone will call the cops.
I worry every time they ride their bikes in the yard alone.
They’ve been excoriated by a woman for playing less than 50 yards up a hiking trail from my husband. She called the park rangers and reported them as unattended, when he was following behind and entirely aware of what they were doing.
My own aunt says I can’t let them play alone. “The world is different now.”
And, she’s right. It is.
Crime is lower than when our parents were growing up, according to Free Range Kids, back to when gas cost 29 cents a gallon, before color TV. And still we hover in fear. These free range parenting bills put a legislative stamp of approval on letting our children live the same kind of childhood that we did. A childhood where we walked to the corner store. A childhood where we asked strangers for help. A childhood where no one called the cops when we rode our bikes around the neighborhood or stopped to play in the creek.
We need these laws. We need these laws so we don’t worry anymore. We need them so we’re no longer afraid, so we can let our kids play.
We need them desperately.
That’s why my 9-year-old stood up and spoke in front of seventy people. He wasn’t showing off. He was begging for a normal childhood. I hope my state will give it to him.