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Editorial: ‘Free-range’ laws could aid parents more than kids

The Herald-Dispatch editorial

Some states are pushing the notion that it’s OK — beneficial, even — to think beyond the backyard fence when it comes to raising self-reliant children, to the delight or dismay of modern parents.

The new buzzword is “free-range,” and in this instance, it’s not describing barnyard fowl. It’s the idea that kids of a certain maturity level should have the freedom to do some things alone, like visit a playground or store, or simply walk the neighborhood.

If the thought of such a situation makes you break out in a worry-induced sweat, you’re not alone, but you might want to pause before hitting the panic button — or calling authorities.

 These are the kinds of activities your grandparents, parents or even you yourself took part in growing up: riding bicycles in packs, exploring nature in the summertime from sun up to sun down. Somewhere along the way, likely due to changes in society, technology, and even the emphasis placed on education, those activities gave way to indoor, supervised pursuits, organized sports and play dates and 24/7 parental observances.

On May 8, Utah will become the country’s first state to legalize free-range parenting, which specifies that it isn’t neglectful to let well-cared-for children travel to school, explore a playground or stay in the car alone if they’re mature enough to handle it. The bill is less about instructing parents how, or when, to supervise their children, and more about protecting their individual choices.

Republican state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who sponsored the legislation, said he wanted to keep police and state agencies from arresting parents for things like letting their kids walk to school unaccompanied.

Now, groups in other states are pushing for similar steps to open up the world to children in the hopes that they will develop into more well-rounded, happy, resilient and capable adults, and that their guardians will be protected from persecution along the way.

“We expect adults to be independent, and we expect parents to raise their children to be independent, and you can’t do that whenever children are being micromanaged,” Brandon Logan, of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, told the Associated Press.

While the jury is still out over whether such changes in thinking will alleviate some parental anxiety or add to it, it seems the real value of the new free-range parenting laws could be in the language that would allow well-meaning parents to escape criticism, or worse, legal action. A Maryland couple who allowed their 10- and 6-year-old children to walk home alone from a suburban neighborhood park in 2015 faced just that.

Discretion will be important in the execution of free-range parenting laws, because the world still is a place where drivers are distracted, needles are found in wayward places, and criminals exist.

However, after the Maryland incident, data journalist Christopher Ingraham wrote for the Washington Post’s “Wonkblog” that, “Kids are dying less. They’re being killed less. They’re getting hit by cars less. And they’re going missing less frequently, too. The likelihood of any of these scenarios is both historically low and infinitesimally small. … If it was safe enough for you to play unsupervised outside when you were a kid, it’s even safer for your own children to do so today.”

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.

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