Utah's free-range bill allows parents be parents, kids be kids

Thursday , May 03, 2018 - 4:00 AM11 comments

D. LOUISE BROWN, special to the Standard-Examiner

Next Tuesday, Utah parents can breathe a little easier when they let their children, ages 5 through 12, play at the park unsupervised, walk outside alone or wait alone in a car. May 8 is the day Senate Bill 65 goes into effect. It’s dubbed the “free-range parenting” law, though some have happily referred it to the “free-range children” law, making some folks wonder if we’re talking about kids or chickens.

Bravo to Utah’s lawmakers for this bill. It’s the first of its kind in the nation, and it says something about our willingness to trust in our kids and in each other. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, said he wants parents to be able to let their kids explore their worlds and learn skills they’ll need as they mature without fearing charges of negligence.

I can completely relate to that fear. Years ago my youngest daughter, as a 3-year-old, tested her independent wings by cruising the neighborhood naked every chance she could grab. I’d help her wash her hands at the bathroom sink, or help her climb down from her chair at the table, or turn away to grab a tissue for her runny nose and when I turned back in any of those settings, she had peeled off her clothes, run to the front door, flung it open, and was galloping down the sidewalk in all her natural glory.

I could never catch her in the act of stripping; she was lightning-speed fast. I could barely catch her out on the sidewalk. But each time I chased her down, scooped her up, and dragged her back home to dress her once again, I prayed that someday the joy of her glorious escapes would wear off.

I also worried that someone would call family services on me, despite my anxious vigilance. Fortunately no one ever did, although occasionally a sympathetic neighbor called out encouragement as I breathlessly pursued my giggling, bare-bottomed child.

I’m not sure the governor’s signature would prevent a phone call to family services at the sight of a naked 3-year-old dashing down the sidewalk with her mom in frantic pursuit. But it does remove at least some of the stigma of careless parenting when kids do unusual things in public. Honestly, when you sit at a park or in a mall, or watch kids in a grocery store, you realize that most everything kids do in public could make them candidates for scrutiny.

That’s why the free-range bill is so welcome. That, plus the simple fact that calling for investigation when none is warranted has multiple negative implications, not the least of which is breeding paranoia in people on both sides of the issue. Parents clamp down on their kids for fear of appearing neglectful, and vigilantes clog up the system with unnecessary reports. Meanwhile, kids sit inside their homes, safe but barred from a world awaiting their exploration.

Most grown-ups, if they took a moment, could tally up a list of discovery moments they would have missed if they grew up in an over-vigilant world. Personally, I would have missed out on riding my bike for miles and learning how to navigate my way back home; discovering a mouse’s nest in the nearby fields and marveling at the tiny, bug-sized, hairless babies; comprehending and avoiding the danger of climbing into a half-filled wheat silo; rolling down hills with siblings and friends inside large, refrigerator-size boxes; walking home from school while learning how to stay safe from traffic; understanding firsthand the wisdom of walking with friends when going through unfamiliar territory; running errands for my dad’s business on my bike; and learning how to keep an eye on my watch so I got home in time for dinner, thus shouldering the responsibility of keeping peace with my mom.

The world kids will explore today is by no means idyllic. At the park I’ve seen kids bullied, heard children spew out profanity that would make a sailor blush, and observed how painfully some kids struggle to fit in. But they are, in fact, learning about life in their world as I did in mine. It’s all part of growing up, and without it, our children will fall behind in their preparations to be active, contributing, capable participants in it.

The dialogue is active on this Senate bill. A few other states are looking at it with a desire to do likewise. Meanwhile, a website called freerangekids.com holds a fascinating collection of discussions.

It’s time for our kids take this ball and run with it. Fully clothed, of course.

D. Louise Brown lives in Layton. She writes a biweekly column for the Standard-Examiner.

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