Controversial 'free-range parenting' is now legal in Utah — here's what that means

Elise Solé

The state of Utah has legalized a controversial childrearing method called “free-range parenting.”

On Friday, Gov. Gary Herbert signed bill SB65 that would allow kids the freedom to walk to and from school, wait in parked cars (while their parents run errands in a store, for example), and visit playgrounds solo, according to a story published Monday by the Associated Press. The bill, which doesn’t specify an age limit for the above activities, will go into effect May 8.

“I feel strongly about the issue because we have become so over-the-top when ‘protecting’ children that we are refusing to let them learn the lessons of self-reliance and problem-solving that they will need to be successful as adults,” Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, who sponsored the bill, tells Yahoo Lifestyle.

As outlined in the bill, the following situations would not qualify as neglect: traveling to and from school or recreational facilities by walking, running, or biking, playing outside, or sitting in a car unattended, provided the child is at least 9 years old and in reasonably safe conditions.

Free-range parenting allows children to grow up with limited parental supervision with the goal of instilling independence. It also utilizes a “common sense” approach to when kids should be left alone.

Utah has passed a law making it OK for families to practice free-range parenting. (Photo: Getty Images)

The phrase was popularized in 2008 when writer and mother of two Lenore Skenazy penned a story for the New York Sun about allowing her then 9-year-old son to ride the subway and bus alone after the boy begged for independence. The article went viral, with some readers labeling Skenzazy the “World’s Worst Mom” and others becoming fans of her blog Free-Range Kids, a resource for like-minded parents.

Several families have faced serious legal consequences for practicing free-range parenting.

In 2015, the Meitiv family of Silver Spring, Md., faced two Child Protective Services investigations after police spotted their children, ages 10 and 6, walking home from the park unsupervised on two separate occasions. In both cases, the family was cleared of neglect.

Florida mom Nicole Gainey was arrested for allowing her son to walk to a park alone. (Photo: GoFundMe)

Other high-profile cases involved Debra Harrell, a mother in South Carolina who was charged with “unlawful conduct toward a child” for allowing her 9-year-old to play alone at a park while she worked at a local McDonald’s, and a Florida mother named Nicole Gainey who was arrested for child neglect after allowing her 7-year-old son to walk alone to a park.

Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute of Utah, a think tank that proposed the law and advocated for its passage, tells Yahoo Lifestyle that it’s not explicitly unlawful for kids to play or walk alone outside; the bill, however, makes it harder to penalize parents for allowing their kids to do so.

“What typically happens is that police or child service workers will allege that abuse or neglect is occurring under a broad, subjective umbrella, and our bill clarifies that certain situations do not apply,” he says, adding that hearing from families that hesitated to give their children independence for fear of being arrested in part inspired the bill.

“We live in a fear-infused culture in which we’ve lost perspective on safety,” Skenazy tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Common activities like leaving a child in a car are often presented as though they pose enormous threats to our safety.”

According to Skenazy, laws don’t allow good-intentioned parents to make common-sense judgment calls, and the consequences for raising independent kids often carry harsh consequences. “Unless there is real evidence of abuse, a simple decision like a parent leaving their kid in the car while they run into a store doesn’t give a concerned citizen the right to start legal proceedings against a family,” she says. “Often the thinking is, it’s better to place a child in foster care than allow her parent to let her sleep in a car.”

Adds Skenazy: “Yes, anything can happen. But I hate the idea that imagination becomes the basis of law.”

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