Would You Leave Your Kids Alone? New Law Says You Can Skip the Baby Sitter

free range parenting
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I remember going grocery shopping with my daughter when she was about 1. We were strolling down an aisle, approaching a couple who looked at us and smiled.

I was about to attribute the smiling to my young daughter’s cuteness when they spoke up.

“I remember when our kids were about that age,” I recall the woman telling me. “When they were small, we could sit them in the cart and go shopping with them. Now we have to get a baby sitter if we need to grocery shop together.”

They walked away with a look that seemed to say, “Enjoy this time while you can.”

As a new mom who had no idea what she was getting into with this parenting thing, I was shocked. I couldn’t imagine having to pay a baby sitter for something like a mundane trip to the grocery store.

Unfortunately, (or fortunately, depending on which way you look at it), we live in a helicopter-parent society that tells us our kids need to be under constant adult supervision.

But a new law passed in Utah is providing parents — and their kids — with a little more freedom.

Free-Range Parenting Gives Parents Greater Discretion

Earlier this month, Utah Governor Gary Herbert signed a bill into law that changes the definition of child neglect in the state.

It’s become known as the “free-range parenting” law, a term coined by the movement following Lenore Skenazy’s New York Sun opinion piece on letting her 9-year-old ride the subway alone and Skenazy’s subsequent book “Free-Range Kids.”

The revisions to the state’s definition of neglect stipulate that neglect does not include allowing a child to engage in certain activities independently, including:

  • Traveling to and from school.
  • Traveling to and from nearby shops, parks or other recreational or commercial facilities.
  • Playing outdoors.
  • Remaining in a vehicle unattended.
  • Remaining at home unattended.

The law — thought to be the first of its kind in the country — states that children engaging in these activities alone must have their basic needs met (presumably fed, clothed and otherwise well-cared-for) and the children must be of “sufficient age and maturity.”

But what is sufficient age and maturity? That is not clearly defined in this law, giving parents discretion to make the call themselves.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Free-Range Parenting

Utah state Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, the bill’s chief sponsor, was quoted in The Salt Lake Tribune saying our society of helicopter parenting is “robbing children of some of the joys of childhood.”

There’s also an argument to be made that supervising our children’s every move and not allowing them to manage independently can stifle their ability to grow into autonomous, self-sufficient adults, à la “failure to launch.”

From a financial standpoint, allowing children to exist in spaces without constant adult supervision can mean parents won’t have to cough up money for a baby sitter to spend an hour of child-free grocery shopping.

Parents won’t have to reduce their hours at work, missing out on wages, to make sure their kids don’t come home to an empty house. They may not choose to enroll their children in expensive after-school programs or summer camps if they deem their kids old enough and mature enough to stay home by themselves.

Utah’s law allows parents to make these types of decisions without fear of having the authorities automatically take their children away or worry about having to hire lawyers to fight possibly unwarranted child-neglect charges.

The downside to this “free-range parenting” law is that it could make allowances for parents to abuse their newfound liberties.

Let’s be honest, not all parents make the right judgment calls when it comes to their kids. And it’s scary to think of children being left in situations to basically fend for themselves when they aren’t ready.

Before the law was passed, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sam Gill expressed concerns to The Salt Lake Tribune that a law like this could compromise prosecutors’ ability to hold abusive parents responsible.

Luckily, Utah’s law still upholds protections for children who lack proper parental care, who encounter threats of harm or abandonment and who face dangerous, inappropriate or abusive situations. It’s just that every unsupervised child won’t immediately be lumped into those categories.

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. She’s a mother who believes children should be protected but that children should also learn independence. She has mixed feelings about free-range parenting.