Utah is the first state to pass legislation offering protection for what’s commonly referred to as “free range” parenting. Those who consider themselves adherents to free range principles put an emphasis on autonomy, allowing kids space and time to explore the world alone and on their own terms. While that kind of open exploration is undeniably great for children — so long as they remain safe — Utah’s effort to legalize telling your kids to go play outside was a big miss. The truth is that it would have been better had they done nothing at all.
What the new law does is amend the state’s definition of neglect by pointedly describing what does not constitute neglect. The language states that as long as a child’s “basic needs are met” and as long as a kid is “of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm,” it’s not considered neglectful for parents to allow children to do some pretty basic activities on their own. Those activities include, but are not limited to, riding their bike around the neighborhood, heading to the park or rec recreation center, walking to school, and coming home to an empty house. That all sounds reasonable enough, but no one had ever been arrested or found guilty of anything for letting their kids do this stuff. Why pass the legislation? Presumably to ensure parents’ safety from neighborhood busybodies.
In essence, the law exists as a means of allowing parents to tell other people to calm down, something they surely could have done without legislative assistance. Not for nothing, but all those big stories that run in the national media about communities being over-vigilant in their policing of children have the same resolution: Parents are exonerated. In other words, Utah has boldly legislated to protect parents from state interventions that would never happen in the first place.
And that’s it.
It’s not as though Utah’s legislation bars scrutiny from Child Protective Services or the police in regards to free-range kids. The language of the amendment is pretty subjective. Who, exactly, is going to determine if a kid is of sufficient age and maturity? Judges maybe. Police maybe. Probably a government employee of some stripe. And isn’t exposing kids to some risk the actual point of free-range parenting?
This is all to say that the legislation is unnecessary, ill-considered, and ineffective. But could it also be harmful?
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The answer is yes. Utah’s law turns unenumerated rights, which are not formally stated by law, into enumerated rights, which are. This sets a terrible precedent, moving the government a step closer to legislating a code of conduct for American parents. In attempting to protect parents from their own neuroses, the Utah legislature has entrusted itself with powers it has no particular business wielding.
There’s also risk involved when the government interferes with systems, laws, and agencies that seem to be working just fine. Let’s call it Helicopter Governance. It’s unnecessary and legislation winds up breeding legislation. Arguments spiral. Tax dollars are wasted. There was no particular reason to believe that Police and Child Protective Services officers, who will now have to consider new legal issues while on their beats, were failing Utah’s children. Sure, high profile free range parents have been publicly scolded by the press and busybodies on cable news, but that’s first amendment issue, not a parenting issue.
In the end, making laws to protect parents from judgment is a waste of time. Not only is it impossible, it puts judgment in the hands of the government in a way that should make people on both the right and the left uncomfortable. The government doesn’t need to protect parents from finger-waggers. The government needs to protect citizens from real threats — of which there are plenty.