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.