It Started Here: Free Range Kids Is Becoming Law
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Loyal readers of The New York Sun might recall my column from 13 years ago headlined “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone.” The Editor of the Sun estimates it is the second most widely reprinted newspaper piece after another Sun classic, “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”
My piece appeared on April 1, 2008, but it wasn’t a joke. It was to explain why I thought it was not only fine for my son to take the subway, but fine for parents everywhere to give their kids some independence when they think their kids are ready for it.
The problem is that our culture has lost its sense of when kids are ready to do almost anything on their own. From birth through post-college “adulting” classes, the assumption is that kids will do better — be safer, smarter and more successful — if there is some well-meaning grown-up assisting them every step of the way.
Once this mindset becomes the norm, it is hard for parents to imagine their children not getting hurt or falling behind if they are left to their own devices. The trend is so strong that a recent survey in Britain found that parents who played outside on their own starting at age nine, now don’t let their kids play outside on their own until, on average, age 11. In just one generation, kids have lost two years of childhood independence.
As for a generation before that, I like to quote the 1979 book, “Your 6-Year-Old: Loving and Defiant.” It had a questionnaire checklist of what any developmentally on-track six-year-old would be able to do, including:
Does your child have two to five permanent or second teeth?
Can he draw and color and stay within the lines of the design being colored?
Can he tell left hand from right?
AND – drum roll, please:
Can he travel alone in the neighborhood (four to eight blocks) to store, school, playground, or to a friend’s home?
It’s hard to imagine our country giving six-year-olds the run of the neighborhood anymore, much less being expecting them to make their own playdates and go to the store. But one huge development just this past Saturday gives me great hope.
Texas passed a law decriminalizing an old-fashioned, free-range childhood. Oh, it doesn’t say that in so many words. But it is a great leap forward for childhood independence. Let me explain.
Two days after that “Subway” article in the Sun, I found myself on the Today Show, MSNBC, FoxNews, and NPR. The story crossed all political lines because it was conversation catnip: Mom lets kid out of sight — and into the subway, exclamation point. For this I got the nickname “America’s Worst Mom.”
To explain my side of things, I started a blog called “Free-Range Kids” (and trademarked the phrase). The blog grew into a book; the second edition is coming out in June. Then the book grew into a movement. Its motto: Our kids are safer and smarter than our culture gives them credit for.
I started hearing from parents who wanted to “Free-Range” their kids, but worried that busybodies might call child protective services on them. I also heard from parents that had actually happened to. Someone writing to my blog suggested, “Why don’t you try to get a law passed that says kids have the right to some unsupervised time and parents have the right to give it to them without getting arrested”?
Good idea. So as I barnstormed the country, giving talks about how we got so afraid for our kids, and how all this overprotection was making them anxious and depressed, I added, “But we can’t really change things until we make sure that parents who give their kids some independence aren’t accused of neglect.”
Darned if the head of the Libertas Institute in Utah, Connor Boyack, didn’t take that idea and run with it. In 2018, he was instrumental in getting Utah to pass the country’s first so-called “Free-Range Parenting Law,” ensuring that kids are legally allowed to walk and play outside, etc.
Then, just a few weeks ago, Oklahoma passed a similar bill. On Saturday, so did Texas, as part of a bigger children’s rights bill. These efforts were all supported by Let Grow, the nonprofit that grew out of Free-Range Kids that I founded with Daniel Shuchman, former chairman of FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education), research psychologist Dr. Peter Gray, and Jonathan Haidt, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind.
Collectively, about 38 million people live in Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas, which means that one tenth of America is now living in a Free-Range Kids / Let Grow state.
More and more, Americans are coming to see that too much of a good thing — safety — can stunt the energy, entrepreneurship, and genius of a generation. The childhood independence revolution is upon us.
And it started right here.