Kids Need Freedom, Too

At long last, states and parents are coming to the same conclusion: It is harmful to punish parents for letting their children take some risks.

Why did I let my 9-year-old ride the New York City subway alone? That’s what the other fourth-grade moms were asking me back in 2008. I was struck that many of them reminisced about their own subway-riding childhoods, but they would never give their own children the same independence in a far safer New York. So I wrote a column in The New York Sun to explain my feeling that you can love your kids and let them do some things on their own, even things that present a hint of risk.

In real life, everything presents risk. That is particularly true with kids. It is only our strange, scared times that would have us believe that perfect safety is achievable if we do everything “right,” like never letting our kids out of our sight for a single second.

Constant supervision wasn’t always an American credo: Today’s parents had plenty of time to play and roam on their own when they were kids. But children’s safety has turned from a concern into an obsession within a generation. The abductions of Etan Patz in 1979 and Adam Walsh in 1981 became huge news stories and led to missing kids’ pictures on milk cartons. (The vast majority of the kids were runaways or taken in custodial disputes, a fact never made clear to the public.) Between TV specials and school assemblies, kids were fed a steady diet of stranger danger. So were their parents. The result, in the words of the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is kids who are being raised “like veal.” 

The problem with a society devoted to zero risk is that kids grow up overprotected and under-socialized. They miss out on the thrilling experience of fending for themselves, crucial in forging confidence. They miss out on learning to assess risk and dealing with minimal danger without constantly deferring to an authority.

A dynamic society requires citizens who appreciate that difficulties and failures are a part of life and that’s OK. Just as kids recover from a bike crash or playground fight, they can bounce back from failure and frustration in their adult lives, too. This is possible only if children grow up with some independence so that they arrive at adulthood with the resilience to handle life on their own.

I didn’t say all that in my “subway ride” column, of course. I just said that parents can take their eyes off their kids, even in New York City. That was controversial enough. TV shows invited me to make my case. To take advantage of the interest in the topic, I started a blog, Free-Range Kids, to explain that I value safety; I just don’t think kids need a security detail every time they leave the house. For this, I earned the nickname “America’s Worst Mom.” But many teachers had the opposite reaction and, enthused about the concept, they wrote to me that they were inspired to try it.

Parents began to reach out, too, fed up with the notion that they were endangering their kids for simply allowing them to have unsupervised playtime. A dad from a New York City suburb wrote that free-range parenting had become a debate between him and his wife, and he was grateful to have a voice on his side. A mom wrote that she had been so encouraged that, at the grocery store, she allowed her son to leave her to get cheese from a different aisle. When he came back, she added, “That boy was six inches taller!”

But trusting kids with almost any autonomy still seemed somewhat subversive. Social media had just begun to ripen, and blaming and shaming parents (especially mothers) became a new trend. One woman told me that, when she blogged about letting her kids play in the front yard “or occasionally toss a ball in the patch of grass at the side of the building—hardly 50 yards away,” trolls in the comment section called her selfish and lazy.

Public shaming was hardly the worst of it. I also started hearing from parents visited by child protective services or the police. Some cases even made the headlines, like the Meitivs in Maryland, investigated twice for letting their kids, ages 10 and 6, walk home from the local park. We were not just battling against a cultural norm anymore. Law had become an obstacle, too.

The trend is starting to reverse, thanks in large part to the efforts of Let Grow, a nonprofit I co-founded in 2017 to advocate for change. In 2018, Utah passed the first free-range parenting law, which prevents investigating parents for neglect if they allow their children to play outside or engage in similar independent activities, like walking to school or staying at home without supervision. Earlier this year, Oklahoma became the second state to enact a similar law with bipartisan support. Only two weeks later, Texas followed with a law of its own.

Thirty-eight million people live in these three states. This means that about one out of every ten parents in America can now allow their children to ride their bikes or run an errand without fear of legal ramifications. (See this map for the laws in your state.) Free-range parenting cannot be mistaken for neglect anymore.

The laws in Oklahoma and Texas go even further. They also protect low-income parents without the means to provide their children with constant supervision—like the Ohio mom arrested for leaving her 10-and 2-year-old kids home because she had to work an evening shift at a pizza shop.

These recent successes are hopefully just the start. South Carolina has a free-range bill pending a vote in 2022. In Colorado, a bill had already passed the state House of Representatives unanimously, but the pandemic shut down the state Senate just days before the vote. Nebraska, Idaho, Georgia, and Virginia are the next frontiers.

American parents are having their right to raise independent kids restored, so their kids can grow into confident and capable adults, ready for the world out there. The parents win, the children win—and so does America.

Lenore Skenazy is the co-founder and president of Let Grow and the author of Free-Range Kids.