Free-Range Kids

Good Moms Don't Have to Be Helicopter Parents

Let's celebrate free-range motherhood, not just on Mother's Day, but year-round.


Some time in the future, I hope Mother's Day will be celebrated by having the kids wait in the car while mom runs into Starbucks to get a latte.

This would be a joyous way to reclaim a parental right that has all but disappeared: the right to convenience. Somehow, moms—and dads, too, but let's talk about moms, since they generally do more of the caregiving and this is their weekend—have been subtly and not-so-subtly informed that doing anything a slightly easier way is tantamount to neglect.

This is done by danger-izing the convenience: pretending that the parenting hack or pleasant practice is actually a threat to the child's wellbeing. Moms, for instance, are strongly encouraged, even hectored, to breastfeed, even though formula-fed babies turn out fine. (I'm one of them.) A few years ago, the CDC told women between the ages of about 13 and 50 never to sip a single, relaxing drink, just in case they happen to be pregnant—as if all kids are one beer away from fetal alcohol syndrome. (They aren't.) And then there's the big kahuna of convenience: car waits.

Moms are routinely harassed and sometimes charged with a crime if they let their kids wait in the car even for a few minutes. The ostensible reason is that cars heat up quickly and a child could die from hyperthermia.  But statistically, more kids die in parking lots than in parked cars. (And they die when forgotten in a car for hours, not in the brief moments while mom is picking up the pizza.)

The authorities have criminalized the safer approach. Why? Because making mom take the kids along for the errand signals devotion. She has inconvenienced herself. A five minute in-and-out jaunt is transformed into the mini-ordeal of possibly waking the child, unbuckling the car seat, strapping on a hat, securing them in a baby carrier or making the triplets all hold hands, and taking them (sometimes wailing) into the establishment, maybe in the rain, maybe in the snow, maybe in the dark—and trying to do all that again on the way back while juggling some packages.

Most of us remember waiting in the car while our moms did some shopping, and it wasn't a Guantanamo experience. It was part of being a kid. And part of being a mom was being allowed not to be with the kids every second of every day, demonstrating, Kabuki-like, that they have put everything else on hold to overprotect their youngsters

That's why the neglect laws need to be clearer and saner. As lawyer Diane Redleaf, a longtime champion of families and now special counsel to Let Grow, notes, "There are vague laws in just about every state that give discretion to child protection investigators and police to label a parent's actions that were done for convenience as 'neglectful supervision,' 'risk of harm,' 'child endangerment,' or 'environmental neglect.'  These laws need to be narrowed. Instead of amorphous standards, we need real legal protections for families."

This idea is neither cruel nor selfish nor risky. It is reasonable and smart to prioritize convenience when children are not in danger. Neglect should be limited to "blatant disregard of obvious danger" and not rational decisions that—horrors!—afford a mom some convenience.

When lawmakers, police officers, child protection workers, and passersby with 911 on speed dial recognize that convenience is not a crime, we will lift a latte and toast to a Mother's Day gift even sweeter than chocolate chip pancakes in bed.