Free Range Parenting in Utah – Then and Now

Free range parenting might seem like a new and lenient idea to many residents in Utah, however they may not remember how things were when they or even their parents were younger.

Leave it to Beaver

Photo by: Rennett Stowe

Remember watching the old shows on TV; the children would get up in the morning and race out the door for a day of unsupervised adventure. Meanwhile Aunt Bea or June Cleaver would be in a dress with an apron: cooking, cleaning, visiting, or gossiping – with no idea what the children were doing. Sometimes the adventures were calm even uplifting, sometimes the adventures were dangerous – Think “Lassie is Timmy in the well”. Outside of TV shows, everyday grade school children played outside until the street lights came on and were even asked to ride their bike to the corner convenience store to pick up milk or missing ingredients. Never seen in TV or reality were the adults getting arrested or have their children taken away for lack of supervision.

Latch-Key Kids

By the 1980’s several families became duo incomes. The latch-key child was born. No longer did the kids yell out “hey mom I’m going out to play. I’ll be back before dark.” The TV became the baby-sitter, children were not seen outside exploring and having adventures but they were watching the adventures of the prior generation’s children. Additionally, concern over child safety increased and so did the laws to protect the children. Parents were worried for the safety of their children and insisted they be home and answer the phone whenever the parent called to check on them.

Helicopter Mom

Photo by: Britt-knee

In the early 2000’s many families had both parents working. Stricter laws made parents leery to leave a grade-schooler alone in the home, even for a brief trip to the grocery store to buy milk. Children were seldom out of the parent’s sight for if an accident happened, there was the fear of being deemed neglectful. Adventures were always adult supervised and thus the Helicopter Mom was born. Some parents were so filled with fraught that even having the child out of sight in a public place for more than two minutes left a fear that someone might see it as an open invitation to harming the child.

Free Range Parenting

Recently the growing concern over the lack of independence in children became a movement. Free-range parenting has been increasing in popularity. Parents want their children to have freedom along with increased responsibilities. Many feel self-esteem, imagination, and responsibility are born from teaching a child, and then let them out on their own. Instead of mom’s hovering, children are being encouraged to stretch their wings and fly.

Utah Child Neglect Amendments

Photo by: Anne Worner

Utah child neglect laws were amended March 15, 2018 to give more freedom for those in favor of free range parenting. The Amendment lists several activities that are acceptable in relationship with the maturity of the child. Included are: being left unattended in a motor vehicle; riding a bike or walking to and from school or playground; being left home alone, etc. The difficulty arises in determining the maturity of the child. One person believes the child is mature enough to ride the bike to the corner store for milk, while another person may see the child as too immature to have that responsibility.

Parental and legal discernment

Some people embrace new or resurrected theories and are excited to try the concept out on themselves and on their family. Other people are slow to change and do not want vary from what they had one in the past. What one sees as acceptable another sees as neglect. Although not all families are ready to let their children experience more unsupervised freedom, those that are should use careful discernment to decide if their child is mature enough. Those Utah parents taking advantage of this new freedom should be warned however that by not specifying an exact age of when a child is old enough to be left alone, the new free range parenting laws leave that discernment not only up to the parent but the police should they be involved. If any legal trouble arises due to a parent exerting their freedom in how they choose to raise their child, contact a reputable criminal defense attorney to discuss the legal freedoms of the new free range parenting laws.

Bill to Amend Child Neglect Laws to Allow ‘Free-Range Parenting’ in Utah

Governor Herbert has signed a bill amending Utah’s child neglect laws to allow ‘free-range parenting’. These changes are to be effective May 8th 2018.

Parenting styles

Photo by: Ben Gray

The term ‘free-range parenting’ began after a book published by Lenore Skenazy called “free-range kids” started a movement of parents nationwide who encouraged their children to do more things unsupervised. Skenazy herself let her 9 year old ride the subway alone while other parents took milder approached to the parenting style by letting their young children walk to school alone. The opposite of helicopter parenting, ‘free-range parenting’ allows children to develop their independence through more freedom. Unfortunately, this choice of parenting style has come at a price for many families across the country.

Punishing parents

There have been several notable instances around the country of parents being punished for not keeping a close eye on their children. While many cases stem from actual neglect, others occur from parents who felt their child was old enough to be without a watchful guardian for a period of time. One case in 2015 resulted in children being removed from their home in Maryland for being alone at a park two blocks from their home. The 6 and 10 year old Meitiv children had been allowed to go to a nearby park without their parents when a neighbor notified police of the unattended children. Officers picked the children up and returned them hours later after the parents agreed to not leave the children alone again.

Protecting parental choices

Photo by: Igor Spasic

After hearing of countless stories of parents like the Meitiv’s being punished for letting their children have more freedom, Utah lawmakers saw the need to protect parents in the way they choose to raise their children by adjusting the laws regarding child neglect. On Friday, Governor Herbert announced that he had signed a bill which amended child neglect laws in order to allow ‘free-range parenting’ in Utah. According to S.B. 65, “[the] bill amends the definition of “neglect” and makes technical changes.” To section 78A-6-105 the bill has added the following:

“neglect does not include:
…(iii) a parent or guardian . . . 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, including:
(A) traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling;
(B) traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities;
(C) engaging in outdoor play;
(D) remaining in a vehicle unattended, except under the conditions described in Subsection 76-10-2202(2) [which ensures kids are with someone 9 years of age or older and aren’t subjected to unfavorable conditions which could lead to hyperthermia, hypothermia, or dehydration];
(E) remaining at home unattended; or
(F) engaging in a similar independent activity.”

Case by case basis

The amendments to the child neglect laws purposely leave out a specific age of child where free-range parenting is allowed. This is to ensure that local officers may work on a case by case basis, as not all children reach the level of maturity necessary to be able to be keep themselves safe while roaming on their own. Parents are encouraged to carefully consider their own child(ren) and whether or not they would be considered mature enough to do the above activities safely without the accompaniment of a parent. Utah parents are also warned that this law does not go into effect for over six weeks and does not apply when Utah residents visit neighboring states. Parents who are currently facing child neglect charges for their choice of free-range parenting are encouraged to seek the assistance of an attorney who is privy to the upcoming changes to laws and how best to address current charges.