Freedom to roam: With Utah law on the books, parents mull ‘free-range parenting’

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Some call this style of child-rearing the reverse of helicopter parenting.

Nationally, advocates of “free-range” parenting have sought a return to letting mature children explore more out in the world alone — and without parents getting shamed — arguing that those kids grow up healthier, happier and more resilient.

Utah recently passed what’s called the first free-range kids law in the U.S. to clarify that it isn’t considered child neglect for parents to allow kids “of sufficient age and maturity” to engage in independent activities such as walking to school, playing outside or staying in a car alone.

Groups from New York to Texas want similar laws. Washington is among many states that don’t legislate the age at which children can be left at home or explore outside alone, letting parents decide as a common sense approach.

“Children need to have autonomy as much as possible over their lives,” said Durgai Garrettson, a Spokane parent of three, ages 8, 12, and 15.

“I’m not a permissive parent. I expect my children to do their chores and meet expectations, but I also want to give them as much freedom as possible to choose how to do that and freedom to explore their neighborhood and have alone time with their friends.”

Garrettson argues the approach lets children learn to trust themselves, figure out who they are and become more resourceful.

“I think some parents are afraid to let their children out of their sight. I think that hurts children. It doesn’t allow them to develop and to use their brains.”

But applying free-range without judgment isn’t always easy as Spokane resident Sadie Lake learned.

A year ago, Lake let her three children – then 4, 8 and 11 – play together in a park directly across from their home, where she could see them from her living room and kitchen. It felt safer than them romping in the front lawn where they’d be closer to traffic, she said. She left the front door open, so she could hear them as she prepped dinner. Then the unexpected happened.

“I get a phone call from a woman with this very judgmental tone,” Lake said. “She said, ‘I’m at the park and I have your children.’ I’m like, ‘Well, OK, I let them go over there to play. I can see you.’

“She was basically judging me, and what she did was ask my kids my name. She looked me up on Facebook and saw we had a mutual friend, called that friend and got my number, then called me basically to chastise me.

“I can’t even let my kids go to the park without this parent judgment thing going on.”

Even though she was comfortable with them playing at the park, especially because they were together, Lake decided to call her children home at that point.

During good weather, Lake said she likes the idea that her kids aren’t cooped up inside and in front of a screen. She has rules for them when they’re outdoors on how far to go. And the children know to run home quickly if they ever feel “creeped out.”

Lake and her family have since moved to a more rural Spokane neighborhood. Although the incident isn’t what motivated a move, it did sour her love for their previous home, she said.

“I have a trust in my children’s intuition,” she said. “I’ve read about free-range parenting. I know the general idea is kids should be trusted to go out and adventure and discover the world within a safe range.

“I think free-ranging is about building the spirit of the child, building their confidence.”

The national debate surfaced a decade ago when parent Lenore Skenazy wrote a column about letting her then-9-year-old son ride the New York City subway alone. She’s remained a vocal supporter of free-range parenting and leads a nonprofit, Let Grow, for childhood self-sufficiency.

Garrettson agrees that age and maturity levels of kids are factors in deciding when and where they should go independently. She’s also read about Skenazy and thinks the new Utah law is a good idea.

“She started the conversation nationally, really, about what should we expect of our children, what should we allow them to do, and is it healthy for them,” Garrettson said.

“I love what they did in Utah. I’ve seen what’s happened on a national level; parents having social services called. That’s concerned me, but I never thought it would happen. I know a lot of people who think like I do.”

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he wasn’t aware of a need for a law locally, because it isn’t unusual for an older child to be out if they’re mature enough. However, a child younger than 8 probably would draw attention.

“I don’t see it as much of an issue unless you’re talking really young kids, then that’s a bad judgment call on a parent,” he said. “I think it comes down to the age of the kid.”

Knezovich said children younger than 8 shouldn’t be out on their own too much. “Depending on the kid, between 8 and 12, it is usually alright if the kid can handle it. It would be a judgment call,” he said.

“When you’re talking about someone 11, 12 or above who has good judgment, I don’t see too much issue with letting them go out and live. That’s what I did.”

National news on free-range kids has reported that a few parents in recent years got caught up in the child protective services system, although a charge in one case for letting kids walk home alone from a local park was later dropped.

Some societal fears around letting kids roam freely surfaced during the early 1980s at least in part because of cases like Etan Patz, who was among the first missing children pictured on milk cartons. He disappeared while he walked to his New York City bus stop alone.

Garrettson said that while kids’ safety is important, she thinks some fears today are irrational. Broader coverage on missing and abused children in those decades brought more visibility to the issue.

“If you look at statistics, we’re actually safer now,” she said. “Children have a way higher chance of being snatched by a relative or abused by a relative than they do by a stranger in the park.”

Still, Garrettson said a free-range parenting style can be a struggle socially. Living near Comstock Park, she wanted to let her children by age 8 walk there by themselves. But another parent “was kind of shaming” her about so-called gangs at Comstock.

“I kind of laughed at that because I grew up in Washington, D.C., and I’m pretty sure there are no gangs at Comstock.

“People are too afraid. They wouldn’t let their children cross the street to play in our front yard unless they were out watching them the entire time they were in our front yard. I think free-range parenting is really about not being too overprotective.”

The Washington state Department of Social and Health offers some guidance for parents around leaving a child alone, suggesting that mature kids begin with short periods of time.

Other tips include having adults call to check in periodically, and giving the child emergency contacts.

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