Free-Range Kids

How the Free-Range Kids Movement Can Save Parenthood

"When it comes to kids' safety, feelings are facts."


Elizaveta Galitskaya

On a cool Virginia day in 2011, Kim Brooks let her son wait in the car for 5 minutes while she ran into the store. Someone saw this, called 911, and got Kim arrested.

But had she literally put her son in harm's way? No. This was a thought crime—the cops thought up scary scenarios that could happen, no matter how unlikely. That's all it took.

Now, Brooks has this weekend's most-read piece in The New York Times: "Motherhood in the Age of Fear." She writes:

The police seemed to think it was child abuse or neglect — that someone could have hurt or kidnapped my son while I was gone.

When I tried to explain this to my outraged father, he said: "Last I checked, kidnapping is a crime. Someone could break into my house and shoot me in the head, but the police aren't showing up to arrest me if I forget to lock my door."

"I don't think they see it the same way when kids are involved," I told him.

"The same way," he said. "You mean rationally?"

Yo go, Dad. And you go, Kim.

In her fantastic new book, Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear, Brooks eventually moves from shame to anger as she starts digging into this obsession we have with child kidnapping, predators, and all sorts of worst-case scenarios that we use as an excuse to hector moms who dare take their eyes off their kids. After all, she writes:

Statistically speaking, a child is far more likely to be killed in a car on the way to a store than waiting in one that is parked. But we have decided such reasoning is beside the point.

…I was beginning to understand that it didn't matter if what I'd done was dangerous; it only mattered if other parents felt it was dangerous. When it comes to kids' safety, feelings are facts.

This decision to act on our fears as if they are real—the definition of panic—has changed both childhood and parenting. If kids are no longer allowed any freedom, parents aren't either.

The result, for kids, is a childhood where they are monitored, shuttled, and kept inside like prisoners. No wonder childhood diabetes, anxiety, and even suicide are up.

But if children must be guarded, parents must be guards. That means that parenting has gone from teaching kids independence—"Be home by dinner!"—to stunting it.

It also means getting screamed at, or arrested, if you dare to trust your kid and your community.

Brooks argues that moms bear the brunt of this, because when the definition of caregiver becomes "Person whose job is to protect children from ever-looming death," any distraction is tantamount to endangering a precious child.

But Brooks also thinks we might just be getting sick of this histrionic terror in these safest of times, and that things are beginning to change:

In March, Utah became the first state to pass a law protecting "free-range" parents. Other states may soon follow. Lenore Skenazy, the founder of the Free-Range Kids movement, is the president of Let Grow, a nonprofit that helps parents, teachers and organizations find ways to support childhood independence and resiliency. And among mothers I know, there seems to be a slow-brewing backlash to the idea that we should let our lives be ruled by the twin fears of danger and of disapprobation.

When more states pass Utah-like laws declaring there is a difference between taking your eyes off your kids and neglect, more parents will be able to breathe a little freer. Which means kids will be able to breathe freer. Which means we will all enjoy a freer country, where we can't arrest parents just because we've lost our minds.

You can find an info packet on the Free-Range Parenting law here.

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  1. I thought “it took a village” to raise a child?
    So arrest the village, not the actual mom.
    Or these parents caught up in this madness need to demand their right to confront their accuser; followed by a civil suit.
    See nothing, say nothing.

    Welcome to the revolution.

  2. meh. It would be far more effective if parents just forcibly resisted when anyone, LEO or not, tried to take their child from them over something ridiculous.

    something something, bill of rights.

    1. An appropriate application of ‘stranger danger’

      They try to take the kid, the kid fights back, biting, clawing, hitting.

      On the other hand, they’d probably arrest/tazer/pepper spray/shoot a 6 year old that tried it.

      1. It’s for his own safety.

  3. “Someone could break into my house and shoot me in the head, but the police aren’t showing up to arrest me if I forget to lock my door.”

    Give it time, Dad. Give it time…

    1. Felonious invitation of a crime

    2. i read an article not too long ago, possibly here but maybe elsewhere, about a proposed law (or may have even been an actual law) in florida, i think, stating it was illegal to leave your car unlocked because doing so could result in someone stealing it.

  4. Among other factors, I blame Boomer (and subsequent generation) parental selfishness.

    Paranoid or not, letting your kids be free raises anxiety, even if just a little bit. Whether letting a 6 year old go alone to the corner park, or the 16 year old take the car for an evening outing, most parents will feel some elevated stress. And since they can avoid that stress by reducing freedom, we raise new generations of weak-willed Americans, soon to be the next cohort of self-serving parents.

    1. I think the selfishness/anxiety is an indirect cause.

      The root cause is the reduced number of kids that more recent generations are having. Parental anxiety is largely flat and divisible by the number of kids you have.

      Just 1 and you worry endlessly. 2, 3, 4, 5 and the worry is spread-out and there is less drive to wrap them in bubblewrap.

      It’s probably evolutionary.

      1. Kids are cheaper by the dozen.

    2. It could be, but it’s just fucking stupid and backfires horribly once the kid hits 18.

      A 6 year old who walked to the corner store who became the 12 year old who rode his bike to the mall who turned into the 16 year old who drove to the next town over to see a movie with his friends becomes an 18 year old who goes to college and then goes to class and maybe has a beer or two.

      The kid who was locked in his room until he’s granted the full freedom of being an adult turns into a fucking mess.

  5. This is just a special case of “that’s not how I would do it, so it should be illegal.”

    1. Exactly. It’s politicians pandering to the vocal helicopter moms who want to impose their obsessive parenting standards on everyone.

  6. The root problem here, of course, is the generally progressive criminal justice attitude (roughly since the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which demonized America’s aging insane asylums) which holds that much deviant sexual behavior isn’t really deviant and isn’t really criminal.

    Even if this behavior is aggressive and predatory, it shouldn’t be treated with incarceration and isolation from society some would insist, but with outpatient community treatment centers whenever possible. Translate this as: as long as they take their meds and their social worker checks on them regularly, they will all be OK.

    Reality is sleeping down the block from your formerly nice neighborhood in what was once a fashionable green belt but has long since been taken over by a homeless encampment/needle park disaster zone.

    Cosmopolitan, liberal policies addressing crime, mental illness, and myriad other delicate social justice issues have turned us into a society where letting your family venture outside your compound at all becomes a problematic adventure.

    1. so you think the world actually is more dangerous and these are fears are reasonable and well foudned?

      thats funny.

      1. In my neighborhood, a police officer was killed .5 mi from my house last Thurs. On Saturday, a guy with an AR-15 was shot and killed by police .9 mi from my “nice” neighborhood (all homes more than $500K.) Both incidents were complicated, but came down to gang relations.

        Now when I was a free range kid, with a bike, a mile was just getting started.

  7. The really stupid thing about not being allowed to leave your kids in the car for a few minutes is… your kids are in greater danger in the few minutes they are outside the car in the parking lot than they are waiting in the car in their car seats.

  8. Click on the NYT op-ed piece and read the comments. “Enlightening.” That should give you a flavor for where this is going. You’ve got to keep your child (your “forever” child, as they won’t ever grow up) monitored 24/7 to ensure nothing bad or dangerous can ever happen. Except for the 100% probability of those parents raising kids that are completely emotionally crippled and not capable of functioning in the world.

    There ought to be a law! (satire for those who are intellectually challenged)

  9. There’s a lot of confusing of cause/effect (and irrelevance) in those ‘safest times ever’ data.

    First it is irrelevant and extremely dishonest to point to childhood disease stuff (the main reason childhood deaths have dropped) as the reason parents shouldn’t be ‘shamed’ if they leave their kids in the car while they run in and shop. One has nothing to do with the other.

    Yes there are fewer kids on bikes or walking being hit by cars. Because kids don’t walk or ride bikes anymore. They are being driven around. The average teen and the average 60-year old now have the same physical activity level. That is nuts and is why childhood obesity is a problem now. The same prob applies to a degree with strangerdanger stuff.

    Don’t pretend for a second that letting kids and parents be normal (or ‘free range’ if you wanna use that crappy term) again won’t jack up those deaths/injuries again. FACT – cars now are bigger. They are being driven faster. Roads are less ped-friendly. And drivers are FAR more distracted now than ever. Which means – more kids being kids will result in more kids being hit by cars. A complete reversal of the trend. PERIOD.

    Mom now (and it still is moms doing the kid stuff) have good reasons to object to other moms shaming them. I’m on the side of the normal ‘free range’ moms here. But that is more about mom ego than kid safety.

    1. Wrong. Not only have childhood disease deaths decreased, childhood deaths decreased for almost all other causes, specifically including violence. Stranger-danger was never a serious threat. Even at it’s worst, the likelihood of violence and/or abduction is much higher to be by someone the child knows well than by a stranger.

      But if you want a true apples-to-apples comparison, there are solid statistics showing that the risk of leaving a child unattended in a car for a short period is rather a lot less than the risk of that same child getting hurt while walking across the parking lot with his/her parent.

      re: “FACT – cars now are bigger.” No, they’re not. CAFE standards have made them smaller. They also have better visibility and increasingly have automated detection and driver-assistance features.
      re: “They are being driven faster.” Nope. Speeding tickets per capita are no different than they were 20 years ago. And speed limits haven’t changed much, either.
      re: “Roads are less ped-friendly.” I’ll grant that most roads were never all that pedestrian friendly but they are no worse now.
      re: “drivers are FAR more distracted now” Maybe but the statistical evidence for this claim is weak. I think you dramatically underestimate how distracted you were at that age. They were just different distractors.

      You claim to be on the side of “normal ‘free range’ moms” but perpetuate the fact-free fearmongering that the nanny-staters use as justification.

      1. Cars are bigger these days. Especially when it comes to weight.
        A Corolla for example is right around 400 pounds heavier today than its 1990 counterpart.

        Some cars are as much as 700 pounds heavier vs their 25+ year old counterpart of the same model.

        1. Oh and their visibility is shitty these days especially when it comes to side/rear visibility.

          Side doors are higher. Pillars and posts are thicker, ass ends are taller

        2. Individual models? Maybe. As a fleet? No.

          Seriously. Check any of the studies evaluating the safety impacts of the CAFE standards. Corollas are heavier primarily because they have moved upmarket a lot from where they were in 1990.

          1. I’m not talking about safety. I’m talking about the assertion that cars today are smaller because of CAFE.

            Now I get there are different trim levels and that has some effect, but virtually every vehicle is heavier today (2018 model) than its counterpart from 1990. Their overall length, roof height, and wheelbase has also increased.
            Maybe in the last 2-3 years the trend has reversed…dunno

            Anyways, 1990 vs 2018:
            Mustang 600-800
            Accord 400-500
            Civic 500-800
            Altima 400-600
            Taurus 700-800

            The only vehicle I randomly picked a name of that weighs about the same is the Camaro, though there is one trim that is a modern porker.

            For fun I decided to go back in time even farther.
            The 59 Impala Sedan and the 2018 Impala Sedan actually do weigh roughly the same, about 3800 pounds each, though the modern Impala is 10 inches shorter and has a 7 inch shorter wheel base.

            The modern Impala’s drive train probably weighs at least 400-500 pounds less than the 59 model owing to the lack of a solid rear axle, and aluminum instead of cast iron for engine/tranny.

            1. You’re still missing my point. Mathematically, you are committing the logical fallacy called survivorship bias. That is, you are comparing only individual models which have survived for that entire period.

              Models which survive tend to move up-market over time. That is, they start as economy models when they enter the market, then get fancier, larger and more feature-loaded as they become more popular and better known. It is rare to the point of non-existence for a successful model to move down-market – that is, to start as a luxury model and later rebrand themselves as economy. By looking only at individual models, you are automatically (and incorrectly) excluding all the bigger cars that are no longer on the road.

              Only by comparing the entire fleet of cars on the road can you assess the claim that cars in aggregate are getting larger (or smaller). When you do look at the fleet level, the data are clear that cars in total are getting smaller. See for example “The Effect of Fuel Economy Standards on Vehicle Weight Dispersion and Accident Fatalities”, Bento et al, 2017 which notes at the bottom of page 3, “We document that CAFE is associated with a lowering of the mean vehicle weight”.

              1. That Bento study is irrelevant re fatalities at least because it is entirely about fatalities among OCCUPANTS of vehicles in crashes.

                Kids don’t drive cars. They get hit by them.
                Fatalities for kids in cars depend mostly on restraint systems – NOT weight/protection provided by a cage around them.
                And, as an aside, many driver safety features also result in faster driving. Seat belts, ABS, etc – the response of drivers is simply to feel more secure/safe – and push it a bit. This is very well known and I’m sure there’s even a word for it. Unfortunately – that is entirely offset OUTSIDE the car by those who get hit BY the car.

                His passing mention of vehicle weight on p3 is quite bogus to cite here. He is not talking about weight in absolute lbs. He is talking about some delta of weight/mpg fuel efficiency. Which I’m not even going to bother to understand but will assume it applies to the otherwise irrelevant stuff re fatalities of OCCUPANTS of cars which is the entire focus of his study. His actual DATA (table on p29) proves my assertion and then some:
                1970-1974 – mean vehicle weight – 3755 lbs
                1980-1984 – mean vehicle weight – 3035 lbs (roughly the start of the millennial driven-everywhere gen)
                2000-2004 – mean vehicle weight – 4020 lbs

                1. As an aside to my previous aside re the effects of vehicle safety on driver behavior. A thought experiment.

                  If we put child seats on the front bumpers of cars rather than inside the car, what do you think the impact on driver speed would be? Well guess what – that’s the closest comparable to hitting a kid with a car. Which is why those places that sustainably reduce child fatalities do so by reducing speed limits in residential neighborhoods – to 20 mph or below (which is where the physics curve for fatalities slopes up faster). Aren’t many places in the US where that’s been done.

      2. Traffic fatalities per 100,000 population are less than 1/2 what they were in the 1960s. Cars may be heavier, but they’re much safer.

      3. “FACT – cars now are bigger.” No, they’re not. CAFE standards have made them smaller.

        CAFE standards made them bigger because in the 80’s they forced mfrs to put their vehicles on light-truck chassis (exempt from CAFE). Those light-truck chassis evolved into SUV’s – and SUV’s now account for 2/3 or more of passenger vehicle sales. Avg curb wgt is now higher than any year since 1976 – and those big boats of the early 1970’s (with plenty of normal kids playing) had child bike/ped fatalities 8-10x higher than today. Kids are still kids. Laws of physics still apply.

        They also have better visibility

        SUV’s height is designed to improve visibility a block away. At the direct cost of reducing visibility of some 3 ft tall kid in hitting distance. Hell – I had to get rid of a great little sports car in the late 90’s because the growth of SUV’s around me made ME less visible and intimidated me off the roads. And that car was a lot bigger than a child.

        1. Sorry but even accounting for the shift to SUVs (which was an artificial result of poorly drafted legislation), in aggregate, the total fleet is still lighter than it used to be.

          1. Sorry too. You can keep repeating an assertion until you’re blue in the face. Doesn’t make it true. Avg curb wgt over time from 1975-2006 (light trucks=pickups/SUV’s; cars=sedans/crossovers). Shows the big drop in late70’s as the 1st generation of Japanese econoboxes/hatchbacks came to the US. Early 80’s (the very lowest vehicle weight) is when the millennial births started and when the whole strangerdanger/bikehelmet/soccermom/guilting stuff resulted in kids being driven around everywhere. Since then – continual rise for both + gradual (but major) shift from cars to SUV’s.

            More detailed study from MIT – curb wgt has increased 26% since 1980; horsepower (drivers don’t use that to go slower) has increased 70-107% since then.

            Since 2006 – lower gas prices = people buy bigger/power vehicles and upsize even more.

  10. I hate to think how much trouble my parents would have gotten into if the current standards were in place back in the 1950s-1960s when I was walking a couple of miles, on streets with no sidewalks, to and from elementary school every day, and was allowed to go anywhere my bike could take me as long as I was home for dinner.

  11. Minor nitpick, but juvenile diabetes is an autoimmune condition whose cause is unknown. The reasons behind its increased diagnosis in modern times are not understood, but it’s very likely unrelated to the scope of this article.

  12. The real mind-blower:

    Cops arrived at the scene of the “crime” in < 5 minutes. Was the store she was running into a donut shop?

  13. Autos in general are both bigger/heavier on avg now, while also being safer and easier to control and stop.

    And either way, that really should have no weight in this matter; kids are more safe in a car in a parking lot than in many other more accepted activities/situations. The articles example is absoluely a case of ” That’s not how I would do it so it should be illegal ” and people’s love of acting holier-than-thou when the opportunity presents itself.

    Oh and Lenore …

    “This was a thought crime?the cops thought up scary scenarios that could happen, no matter how unlikely. That’s all it took.”

    Thats not what thought-crime means. 🙂

  14. Autos in general are both bigger/heavier on avg now, while also being safer and easier to control and stop.

    And either way, that really should have no weight in this matter; kids are more safe in a car in a parking lot than in many other more accepted activities/situations. The articles example is absoluely a case of ” That’s not how I would do it so it should be illegal ” and people’s love of acting holier-than-thou when the opportunity presents itself.

    Oh and Lenore …

    “This was a thought crime?the cops thought up scary scenarios that could happen, no matter how unlikely. That’s all it took.”

    Thats not what thought-crime means. 🙂

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