Utah’s Free-Range Kids Law Lets Parents Breathe Easy

What does it feel like to be a parent in Utah, the first (and thus far only) state to pass the free-range kids bill? Pretty great, according to a new piece from Psychology Today.

Utah’s law states that letting your kids play outside, walk to school, wait briefly in the car (under some circumstances), and come home with a latchkey does not constitute neglect unless something else seriously bad is going on. The bill passed both houses unanimously and Gov. Gary Herbert signed it into law, saying, “We believe that parents know and love their children better than anybody. Responsible parents should be able to let kids be kids without constantly looking over their shoulders for approval.”

Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist and one of my three co-founders of Let Grow, wondered if that’s what actually happened. For his Psychology Today column he asked Utah parents to tell him whether the law truly made a difference in their lives, and they said yes.

One mom told Gray that this summer she let her son, age 12, get around by foot, bike, and public transit. “I’m so grateful the free-range parenting law allows me to safely teach my children how to be independent and confident without worrying about the judgment of a person who has helicoptering tendencies,” she said.

Another parent, Brannon Burton, confessed that he was probably a bit of an overprotective dad. “I worried about letting [my children] walk to school, play at the park, or go trick or treating without an adult,” he wrote to Gray. But as they got older, he also started to worry that something was missing—their ability to get around the neighborhood, and solve problems on their own.

For this he blamed a dearth of real-world interactions. “Without these experiences, my wife and I have observed that our kids stress easily, get stifled by easy problems, and are easily frustrated,” he said. In an effort to fill these inadequacies, we felt it was important to allow our kids to go to the park on their own, wander the neighborhood, and play. When we heard about the ‘free-range parenting’ law, we felt far more comfortable that we wouldn’t be held liable.”

Since loosening the reins, Burton said, his kids seem more confident and resilient.

Finally, one California-to-Utah transplant, Krista Whipple, told Gray that while Utah folks already seemed “fiercely protective” of their freedoms compared to her West Coast comrades, nonetheless, “it gives me peace of mind knowing that I can let my kids have some freedom and responsibility without the fear of the potential consequences I may have faced in California.”

And sure enough, when I reached out to Krista to hear a little more, she emailed back:

My best friend in California just had the cops called on her last week for letting her baby stay asleep in the car with the windows down while she walked her son up to the door of the building where he is taking a class only a few yards away. They showed up with two cop cars, a fire truck and an ambulance.

We all want kids to be safe from danger. But they should also be safe from moral panic. Some people in authority clearly believe that kids are in danger the second a parent glances away from them, and thus many parents end up helicoptering their kids when they really want to give them some independence. This is unfair to both generations, and also to our country, which needs intrepid, creative, resilient young people.

Currently half a dozen states are considering free-range parenting laws. Some towns are also considering free-range proclamations, which carry less weight, but support the general idea.

Interested legislators and citizens can find more information here, on Let Grow’s policy page. Give parents the freedom to give kids theirs and everybody wins.

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