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How the Free-Range Kids Movement Is Helping Parents Embrace Their Libertarian Side

"So basically it's now legal to go outside and play like when I was a kid."

freeNullplus / DreamstimeIn signing the Free-Range Kids Bill, Utah just became the first state to explicitly recognize the right of parents to raise their kids without the threat of government intervention. Imagine that: it will no longer be considered negligent to let your kid walk to school, play outside, come home with a latchkey, or even, under certain conditions, wait briefly in the car.

The bill, which was named for the movement I started, has has been getting tremendously positive press. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal (that one's by me), Good Morning America, USA Today, The Hill, and Kennedy of Fox Business all covered it favorably. And the vast majority of commenters have said something along the lines of finally and it's awful we even need a law like this.

Here, for instance, is The Washignton Post story. It begins:

It all started when Lenore Skenazy let her 9-year-old ride the subway home alone. She gave him a map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill and — just in case — some quarters for a pay phone call. Then she left him in the handbag section in New York's original Bloomingdale's. It was all his idea. He had begged Skenazy to just leave him somewhere and let him find his way back all by himself, until finally, on a spring day in 2008, she let him do it.

"I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway down, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home," she wrote in her 2008 column for the New York Sun, the one that ended up starting a movement. "If he couldn't do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, 'Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I'll abduct this adorable child instead.'

"Long story short: My son got home, ecstatic with independence."

Within days, Skenazy's story went viral, as parents across the country wondered whether she was "America's Worst Mom" or just one who valued her kid's independence. Within a year, she wrote a book. She coined a new term. She called her parenting style "free-range," allowing her son to do various activities without stifling supervision.

And now it's the basis of a new law in Utah.

And here is a typical comment:

The people of Utah feel they should be allowed to parent and make choices without the threat of losing their kids. Utah is simply trying to stop the encroachment of government into every part of their lives.

Here's a comment from The New York Times piece:

Finally, a sensible law.

And from Yahoo News, where the piece garnered 6,791 comments:

So basically it's now legal to go outside and play like when I was a kid.

This push for freedom isn't over—the Times reports that other states are considering similar laws. And media interest continues. I was on CBS This Morning on Saturday, and on Monday I'll be on C-Span at 8:30 a.m. After that I'm on NPR's "On Point" from 11:00 p.m. until noon.

Free-range parenting has captured America's imagination because America has captured its kids. We have been locking them up at home, transporting them to supervised classes, and tracking them by text and GPS, all in the name of safety. We do this, even though the crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents per gallon.

Now that I am president of the new non-profit Let Grow—Free-Range Kids with a board and a budget—my goal is to make it easy and normal to give kids back their freedom, so they grow up ready to think and fend for themselves.

I have to thank Reason for giving me a platform for all these years, and publishing that "Fragile Generation" cover story. I would also like to give a special shout out to the Reason Foundation's Adrian Moore for helping me write what became the first draft of the Free-Range Kids law. Onward.

Photo Credit: Nullplus / Dreamstime

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  • Eidde||

    "Imagine that: it will no longer be considered negligent to let your kid walk to school, play outside, come home with a latchkey, or even, under certain conditions, wait briefly in the car."

    I'm sorry to say the relevant language of the new Utah statute seems narrower than this. But judge for yourself:

    "Neglect" does not include:...
    (iv) 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)*;
    (E) remaining at home unattended; or
    (F) engaging in a similar independent activity.

    *(2) A person who is responsible for a child is guilty of a class C misdemeanor if:
    (a) the person intentionally, recklessly, knowingly, or with criminal negligence leaves the child in
    an enclosed compartment of a motor vehicle;
    (b) the motor vehicle is on:
    (i) public property; or
    (ii) private property that is open to the general public;
    (c) the child is not supervised by a person who is at least nine years old; and
    (d) the conditions present a risk to the child of:
    (i) hyperthermia;
    (ii) hypothermia; or
    (iii) dehydration.

  • Eidde||

    Here's how a defense lawyer in Salt Lake City analyzes the new law:

    "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."

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Still, it's a step in the right direction.

  • Jerryskids||

    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."

    Parents should be warned that "carefully considering" ain't gonna mean shit when the nosy neighbor complains and agents of the state consider that your child is not as mature as you think and your years of experience with the kid don't matter as much as their 5 minutes interaction with him.

  • Jerryskids||

    So you're told it's okay to loosen your child's leash to a "reasonable" extent but you're not going to be the one allowed to define "reasonable". As far as the cops go, I can see this being a revenue-enhancement deal. People will obey the law no matter how stupid as long as it's specific, make the law a little vague and illegal behavior a matter of opinion and everybody's potentially a target. It's like having speed limit signs that just say it's illegal to drive too fast. You know it's not you going to be deciding what's "too fast".

  • LarryA||

    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.

    So, like 26?

  • JFree||

    You are right that this is all very situational and conditional because we haven't done a damn thing in this country to actually make the A and B conditions safer for kids to do.

    (A) traveling to and from school, including by walking, running, or bicycling;
    (B) traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities;

    The second that kid ends up biking in the road because the road doesn't have a sidewalk or a bike lane or the bike lane is blocked or it's morning rush hour and the road does have a bike lane but it's also a rat run or there's a bike lane but the street parking next to it is in/out stuff where the likelihood of being doored is high or because that is the only way to get to school, then you can bet someone is going to call the cops to prevent the kid from being killed. Because the kid himself can't remotely comprehend the risks - and the parents put him in that situation - and kids ARE NOT parental property.

    And most parents know this too (re the actual risks not the risk of someone calling the cops) - which is why they will have to continue to drive the kids everywhere. The problem is the damn traffic people - not the nosy neighbors. The solution is to fix the damn traffic.

  • Ken Shultz||

    I was thrilled to read this in the WSJ yesterday.

    It's funny how a supposedly regressive state like Utah can get so much right by resisting change.

    I think part of it is being part of a minority religious movement. By no means does that automatically make people more tolerant and accepting of people who are different--but that's one way it can go. The people of Utah have their quirks (easy access to alcohol and legal marijuana won't come there anytime soon), but apart from that, if we're not talking about something people think will negatively impact them or their children, you're pretty much free to do as you please.

    Gun laws are great, don't have to wear a helmet to ride a motorcycle, etc., etc.

    I think they're so afraid of the government coming after their children for their religious beliefs, they're happy to let other people raise their children as they see fit--because they think their freedom rests on that same foundation.

    Thank goodness for people with odd religious beliefs. Where would we be without them?

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Israel has school choice for a similar reason. During the Middle Ages, European Christians would kidnap Jewish babies to raise them as Christians. In more recent centuries, Russian Tsars used mandatory military service as an opportunity to force Jewish lads to learn Christian doctrine. Today, American Jews raised in government run schools have a religious status that resembles those captured kids.

  • DajjaI||

    This is great but still, don't kiss them on the lips. Unless you're trying to raise a mass shooter.

  • Francisco d'Anconia||

    Congrats, Lenore, for bringing this abomination to the public eye. Apparently, one person can make a difference.

    Thank you

    Here is my one concern with this legislation...

    While I haven't read the actual verbiage, doesn't this law tell people what they "can do" rather than what they can't? Is the assumption that everything is illegal unless government specifically gives you permission? I'm no lawyer, but I'm concerned about what precedent this might set.

  • mtrueman||

    I'm no doctor but I'm losing my patience.

  • Griffin3||

    It does permit, with everything else being forbidden, Francisco. Which would seem bad, but is a step in the right direction. Because now, as it stands, everything is forbidden, in the eyes of barney cop and a nosy citizen with a grudge/opinion.

    With the new law, you have a chance to head off a multi-week child protective services investigation by pointing to the law.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    This push for freedom isn't over—the Times reports that other states are considering similar laws.

    Require people to pay a yearly certification fee in free range parenting and you'll have every state legislature interested in legalizing it.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Which is why I think we should legislate a hunting season on politicians....

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    If we can't have that , I'd like to have a vote every year that allowed us to elect 5 politicians to have killed, or perhaps 10 that would be paired for fights to the death.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    After that I'm on NPR's "On Point" from 11:00 p.m. until noon.

    You have a terrible agent.

  • mtrueman||

    "Free-range parenting has captured America's imagination because America has captured its kids. We have been locking them up at home, transporting them to supervised classes, and tracking them by text and GPS, all in the name of safety. We do this, even though the crime rate today is back to what it was when gas was 29 cents per gallon."

    Why do we do this? Do you think the new law will cause Americans to free their captive kids? Unless we can answer why, I doubt new laws are going to change much.

  • Steve-O||

    I'm not so sure. I'm probably not a typical example of an American parent (as evidenced by my commenting on Reason), but I definitely keep my kids on a shorter leash than I otherwise would out of fear of nosy neighbors and CPS. If there were a law like this in my state, my kids would be doing a lot more free range by than they do now.

  • mtrueman||

    Lack of trust in neighbours, institutions and authorities leads to feelings of insecurity. In the adults. I think Americans are overwhelmed by insecurities and even a sense of impending doom. Not surprisingly a religious community like Utah, home to Mormons, can muster the faith and fellowship to pull this leash lengthening off.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    My mom believed in free range parenting. This lead to rumors ...

  • Griffin3||

    Same here. I would let my kids be even more free range, but my wife worries that some busy-body will turn them in. My raising of my children is constrained by my fear of police action, rather than my fear of anything that could possible happen to my children themselves.

    Fortunately, living outside a town of 334 registered voters, in the middle of cow and soybean fields, that leaves a lot of room for childhood freedom. I wouldn't live in a busybody city if you paid me.

  • JFree||

    Unless we can answer why, I doubt new laws are going to change much.

    This started in the 80's when the boomers had kids in large numbers. IMO the origins are 10-15 years before when boomers were still single. The US bicycle industry had itself entirely given up even marketing bicycles to adults by WW2 but boomers wanted to keep riding bikes as adults. What happened was the discovery that it's fucking dangerous to ride bikes to get anywhere in a car-dominated system. The same thing happened around the same time in NL and DK both also car-dominated by then.

    The difference was the response. In the NL and DK, bicyclists lobbied - politically - to make the roads safer for biking which also makes the roads safer for walking. They used "Stop de Kindermoord" to do that. They still also had pre-WW2 adults who remembered biking-as-transport. Without suburbs, cities there slowly redesigned their road grids and traffic laws and such to make them safer for walking/biking. Today bikes are heavily used and adults and kids (alone or with friends) ride bikes in every city without even helmets.

    In the US, boomers took that fear with them to the burbs when they had kids. Roads/grids were designed even more for cars and those new parents put their own kids into a cocoon. 'Justified' those fears by turning it into 'normal parenting'. So biking is now an extreme sport and no one walks (which is why pedestrian deaths fall) and America is fat and kids now think 'safe space' is normal

  • mtrueman||

    You're probably right that it started in the 80s, but I think there is more going on than suburbanization, given that the boomers themselves were born and raised in the burbs and had no particular reason to start fearing them. Steve-O talked about fear and distrust of neighbours and authorities, and I think that cuts closer to the heart of the matter. Didn't Hilary Clinton write a book called It Takes a Village? Those beset by feelings of isolation and fragmentation do not make the best parents.

  • JFree||

    No - the fear was about biking/transportation/mobility. That's the issue they experienced as young single adults in the 70's as the first adults to buy bikes in significant numbers since the 1910's. That it wasn't safe for them (often in the city as singles) - and if it wasn't safe for them as young adults, it wasn't gonna be safe for their future kids riding bikes any real distance from home either. No previous generation of adults had ever experienced 'life on a bike' during the automobile era.

    Crime and their upbringing and other stuff then may be why they headed back to the burbs to have their own kids. But that ability to 'let go' of a kid is about both mobility and fears of what may happen outside eyesight. The kid's own notion of their boundaries and independence is entirely about mobility. The authors own story about her kid on the subway. The very word now - free range. And what form of mobility can kids have (in most places)? Bikes and their own feet. Otherwise they are dependent

    The difference is in NL/DK, they (and previous generations) made the transport changes directly via politics. In the US, they made the changes in what was perceived as 'normal parenting' via politics/shaming.

  • JFree||

    As an aside - the late 70's and 80's was also when bike helmets first started being made/sold. Nothing says 'this might be dangerous' like people wearing helmets while doing it. So even new parents who didn't get the direct experience - saw it second-hand and that transfers directly to how they view bikes/mobility for their own kids.

  • Libertarian||

    As I've said before in regard to passing laws that aim to legalize behavior: if we have to write a separate law to address anything we're allowed to do, the country is going to sink under the legal code.

  • Steve-O||

    I view the law not as giving permission, but as a kind of a safe harbor provision.

  • spanky & alfalfa||

    you have no idea what you're talking about unless you're from the east and have been living in utah for three years.

  • spanky & alfalfa||

    spend two years in orem/provo at UVU and BYU and see what you think of free-range parenting then. The University of Utah has students who walk around with clipboards checking on people. BYU has it's own methods, as does UVU most definitely.

  • I'm Not Sure||

    In signing the Free-Range Kids Bill, Utah just became the first state to explicitly recognize the right of parents to raise their kids without the threat of government intervention.

    Of course, there's absolutely no chance that the state might decide at a later date to no longer recognize this "right", right?

    One more step down the "Everything not forbidden is compulsory" road. And it's considered a victory- go figure.

  • James Pollock||

    "my goal is to make it easy and normal to give kids back their freedom, so they grow up ready to think and fend for themselves."

    Of course, to do this, you felt it was necessary to censor other people.

  • Rich||

    So basically it's now legal to go outside and play like when I was a a reasonable kid.

    FTFY

  • Rich||

    OT: The Brooklyn Museum has sparked outrage in the black community after tapping a white woman to curate its vast African art collection.

    On Monday the museum appointed Kristen Windmuller-Luna, 31, who has a Ph.D. in African art history from Princeton University, lectures in Columbia University's department of art history and archaeology, and once worked as an educator for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was "responsible for adult and college gallery tours in the African galleries." Despite the stellar résumé, her hiring left some wondering why a qualified person of color did not get the post.

    It also left some wondering why Dr. Windmuller-Luna does not self-identify as a person of color.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    In the late 1960's the New York City public school teachers went on strike for several weeks, because one high school tried to purge the staff of White teachers. Attempts to purge institutions of people belonging to the "wrong" group happen every few decades.

  • Griffin3||

    Great link, sharmota4zeb. I especially liked the bit about, as a result of the teachers striking for 45 days, the students were forced to stay 45 minutes later each day and attend school through Christmas vacation, in order to meet the holy mandated 180 days of instructional hours.

    Having home-school two kids, I know first hand how much of the standard school year is just a steaming pile of crap, mandated as teacher's/union job security vice any actual educational requirement.

  • Juice||

    Also, Judge says it's ok for landlord's to decide who rents their property

    A King County Superior Court judge has struck down a landmark Seattle law that required landlords to rent to the first qualified applicant.

    The "first in time" law, passed by the city council in 2016, is meant to fight implicit bias by landlords who may unconsciously discriminate against potential tenants because of factors like race, gender, or disability. It requires landlords to clearly state their rental criteria and then rent to the first applicant who meets those criteria.
  • sharmota4zeb||

    When I was young, parents who wanted free range kids supported the Montessori movement. By the way, the Onion published a tangentially related piece right before Easter.

  • Bubba Jones||

    "quarters for a pay phone call"

    Do those still exist?

  • Griffin3||

    Mebbe in New Yahk.

  • Griffin3||

    This is obvious spam, but I cannot figure out the payload. No hinky javascript, no cheesy ads, no coin-mining plugin. Just a fairly straightforward non-autoplay video w/ transcript on how to install kodi on an fire-TV stick, without even a affiliate link to amazon. I wonder what I am missing.

  • Cyto||

    I want to echo everyone's kudos. As a parent of 3 small kids, this is very important to me.

    But I also want to point out the irony of receiving applause from all of those mainstream news organizations, since they were instrumental in creating the situation we have now. For most of my adult life, the last 30 years, it has been a Non-Stop drumbeat of moral Panic after moral panic. They have repeatedly cried, won't someone please think of the children, and pushed for the government to do more to protect kids. Somehow I think the irony is lost on them.

  • Boomer||

    That's great Utah, but my kids are all grown up. Please call me when you make it legal for someone other than State employees to sell alcohol.

  • gaoxiaen||

    Keep it up, and the next thing you know they'll want a slingshot or BB gun. The horror!

  • Hank Phillips||

    When I was six I roamed for miles in all directions... in São Paulo. Today with guns outlawed and reproduction mandatory, it's not safe for tor a trained adult to walk around the block.

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