July 3rd, 2020


Making Childhood Legal

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published April 3, 2019

Making Childhood Legal
Do kids have the right to go outside and play, ride their bikes and goof around on their own, without adult supervision?

Not if their parents could get arrested or investigated for neglect.

That's what brought three state legislators and five experts (including me) to Hartford, Connecticut, the other day to testify before the Connecticut Legislature's Committee on Children. Our goal? Passage of a free-range parenting bill.

State Reps. Gail Lavielle and Tom O'Dea and state Sen. Will Haskell spoke passionately about the need for children to have some independence. O'Dea recalled the day his son, then about 9, forgot his football helmet at practice. He made the boy ride his bike a half-mile to retrieve it. His wife was a little taken aback, O'Dea admitted. "But did my son forget his helmet again? Never."

The free-range bill would ensure it is not considered neglect for parents or caregivers to let their kids walk or play outside unsupervised.

The legislators were joined by Colleen Fawcett, a licensed clinical social worker who, among other things, has been coordinator of Youth Services for the town of Wilton, Connecticut, for 25 years. Lately, she said, she has seen a "dramatic" increase in anxiety and depression among young people, including five kids in the past six months — ages 18, 16, 13, 11 and 8 — who did "suicidal gestures" (considered more serious than threats).

If not treated effectively, those kids may turn to self-medication or addiction, Fawcett said. "But prevention and early intervention work. Free play is both."

Dr. Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College, also spoke of the power of free play. When kids are allowed to play and explore away from adults, they learn to get along, deal with risk, overcome frustration and develop resilience, he said. "When we 'protect' children from all that, we 'protect' them from growing up."

State Sen. Mary Abrams nodded, saying, "They do need some time away from adults to make decisions." Calling herself a "free-range mom," state Rep. Liz Linehan nodded, as well.

Wilton's superintendent of schools, Kevin J. Smith, added that to thrive, kids need "exactly the opportunities most of us 40 and older experienced." But even parents who want those for their kids "express legitimate worries" about being investigated.

This is not because of an increase in crime, which is at a 50-year low, Smith said. It is because of the radical recent belief that an unsupervised kid is automatically in danger.

Other eras did not think this way, and neither do other countries today, Vanessa Hoffman Elias, president of the board of directors of the Wilton Youth Council, told the committee. (Have you guessed that Wilton is a very free-range/Let Grow town?) "I have raised my children in Utah, Connecticut, London, England, and Zurich," said Elias. In Switzerland, not only do children walk to school from a young age but also parents are strongly discouraged from walking with them.

In America, it has become so normal to do such things as stand next to kids at the bus stop that gradually, "helicopter parenting" has acquired the patina of law. We've all heard of parents who have been arrested or investigated for letting their kids walk home from the park or take the dog for a walk.

Connecticut's SB 806 wouldn't "magically solve the problem," Dr. Gray admitted. "But I've spoken to parents who say, 'I know my kid is ready (for some independence), but I'm afraid to do what I, as a parent, think is best."

Actually, said state Sen. Abrams, "laws have changed the culture. Think in terms of things like smoking indoors." Once it was normal. Now it's not.

Right now, forbidding kids to walk and play outside unsupervised seems normal.

But thanks to states revisiting their neglect laws — including South Carolina, Arkansas and Texas — soon this may seem as strange as it would have in the '80s.