September 26th, 2021


Can Johnny Come Out and Play --- Legally?

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published May 3, 2021

Can Johnny Come Out and Play --- Legally?
We've all heard stories of parents getting investigated or even arrested for letting their kids do something as simple as walk to the park on their own. But on Wednesday, Oklahoma and Texas both passed "Reasonable Childhood Independence" bills ensuring parents that they can let their kids play outside, stay home alone a bit and engage in other normal childhood activities without being accused of abuse or neglect.


These bills just await their governors' signatures.

Also on Wednesday — a banner day for families — the Nevada Assembly's Health and Human Services committee held hearings on a similar bill that proved so popular all the committee members ended up asking to co-sponsor it. It had already passed in the state's Senate.

This is a triple-header for parents and kids!

The nonprofit I lead, Let Grow, supported this legislation because we hear from so many parents who WANT to let their kids go climb a tree or run an errand but are afraid someone could call 911 and open an investigation on them. So, instead, they keep the kids inside on the couch.

This bill, modeled on the so-called Free-Range Parenting law passed in Utah in 2018, had bipartisan sponsorship in Oklahoma and Nevada. In Nevada, bill sponsor Sen. Dallas Harris, D-Clark County, confided to the assembly that she sometimes leaves her 9-year-old alone when she makes a quick Walmart pickup. Other assembly members said they wished the law had been in place when they were raising their kids.

"The legislation in all three states focuses on clarifying the difference between real neglect and reasonable parenting decisions," said Diane Redleaf, Let Grow's legal consultant. Redleaf has worked for decades to narrow neglect laws, especially to ensure they don't sweep in parents for reasons of poverty alone. "When parents leave their kids in obvious danger, that's neglect. But when they decide their child can walk to Grandma's because mom has two jobs, the law needs to start supporting that parent."

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In Oklahoma, Rep. Chad Caldwell, R.-Enid, sponsored the bill in part because he was a latchkey child himself. "I'd ride my bike home from school, grab a snack and go back out again to play King of the Mountain in the empty lot nearby," he said. Those experiences gave him the confidence and adventures he wants today's kids to enjoy, and his co-sponsor from across the aisle, Rep. Jacob Rosecrants, D-Norman, feels the same.

In Texas, Andrew Brown of the Texas Public Policy Foundation shepherded the bill. His state has been home to a couple of infamous stories of child protective overreach, including one where a passerby called 911 to report Kari Anne Roy's 6-year-old playing in view of the house.

The authorities came and interviewed each of Roy's children, asking her 12-year-old son if he'd ever done drugs and her daughter, 8, if she had seen movies with people's private parts — something she'd never even heard of.

Dr. Rachel Flynn, a psychologist and assistant professor of child and adolescent development based in Reno, Nevada, testified that, over her 23 years in the field, she has worked with kids of every ethnicity, rich and poor, including "the gifted and talented, as well as those who are nonverbal with severe intellectual delays."

But across the board, she said, "I've seen children's mental health declining, and the research supports this. There is more anxiety, more depression and more perceived learning disabilities."

Flynn blames this, at least in part, on kids losing their independence. "All children need to use their executive functioning skills by making decisions and solving problems. They need to practice their visual spatial skills by moving through the world. And they need to play."

The Reasonable Childhood Independence bills — House Bill 2565 in Oklahoma, House Bill 567 in Texas and Senate Bill 143 in Nevada — give childhood back to kids and parenting back to parents. What a gift. And just in time for summer!