By Lenore Skenazy
Utah just became the first state in America to pass the so-called “Free-Range Parenting” bill, named for the movement I founded. It declares that parents can’t be arrested for negligence just because they let their kids play outside, walk to school or wait briefly in the car.
But do we really need a law like that? “What next?” wrote one commenter. “Utah legalizes drinking from the hose?”
Well here’s the rub: In most places, it is still, thank God, totally legal to let your kids do the things we did as kids, like play outside or bike to the store. Most parents who give their kids a little freedom do not get arrested or investigated.
But once in a while, they do — like the Meitiv family in Maryland, investigated twice for letting their kids, 10 and 6, walk home from the park. Or Debra Harrell, the single mom in South Carolina who let her daughter, age 9, play at the sprinkler park, rather than sitting at McDonald’s all day while mom worked her shift. For not being at the park with her frolicking child, Debra was thrown in jail for a night and had her daughter taken away for 17 days. Similarly, many parents have been arrested for letting their kids wait in the car a couple minutes while they picked up the pizza or dry cleaning.
In all these cases, the kids were not in any more danger than they’d be walking down a flight of stairs: Sure, they could fall and break their necks. But overwhelmingly, the odds were on their side.
Because we understand that nothing can be 100 percent safe, we have not criminalized parents who choose to raise their kids in homes with stairs. But increasingly we have criminalized parents who choose to let their kids out of their sight.
Why is that?
Chalk it up to the modern and misguided belief that any time kids are unsupervised, they are automatically in danger.
This belief is new. When you were growing up, most likely your parents did not worry every single second you were out that you were in mortal peril.
But six recent developments are not just driving parents nuts with worry — they are inspiring busybodies to frantically dial 911 every time they see a kid on his own. These developments are:
1. The media
With a 24/7 media cycle, there’s no respite from terrible news. And terrible news is what the media look for — the worse, the better, because that means more people will watch. More eyeballs = more revenue for the network. “Up next: Is your child’s sippy cup safe?”
No danger is too dumb to worry about — and grab viewers with.
Then the drama shows take real-life tragedies, throw in some terrorists, season with a psychopath and toss it all in the blender of doom. Voila: “Law & Order.”
The media glue us to the screen with fear.
2. Our litigious culture
“Your kid broke her arm at recess? Sue!” Lately we have all started thinking like product liability lawyers, convinced that there are no innocent accidents, only people and products who screwed up and someone’s gotta pay.
Once you’re wired to look for negligence, you find it everywhere. And once you start finding it, nothing seems safe enough. Richland, Wash., got rid of all the swings on its playgrounds after a child fell off and died. Alberta, Canada, banned all bathroom passes on lanyards after a child got one wrapped around his neck and suffered near-strangulation. One single sad, anomalous event is all it takes to freak us out, make a law and/or ban something forever. We have been trained to see the world through the lens of danger, registering only risk, never reward.
Experts in the media have one message for parents: “You’re doing it wrong.” They sabotage our confidence. They make the world seem difficult and dicey. I just Googled “10 Toy Safety Tips” and immediately found this doozy: “Discard the plastic wrappings from toys immediately; they become deadly playthings to small children.” Deadly? Really? So dangerous they must be removed “immediately,” like radioactive isotopes?
Even plastic bags don’t kill kids unless they cover the mouth of a baby so young that he can’t move it away. A kid that young is not opening a package. But of course it doesn’t matter if an expert’s tips make any sense. All they really have to do is make you scared enough to watch the show or buy the magazine.
Speaking of which . . .
4. The child-safety industrial complex
If you can convince parents that their kid is in any kind of danger — physical, psychological, emotional — you can get them to buy almost anything to make that danger disappear. So it is just good business to frighten parents. This starts the second they bring their happy, healthy baby home from the hospital. Popular new monitors check the baby’s breathing, heart rate and blood-oxygen level — tests previously performed only in the neo-natal intensive-care unit. Somehow even healthy babies today are treated as if they are extremely fragile.
Then come all the crazy safety doodads like baby knee pads to keep kids “safe” when they crawl and baby spoons that change color if the food is too hot — as if parents couldn’t figure this out on their own. Entire aisles at Babies R Us are filled with safety devices somehow no one ever “needed” until now.
But once you have rewritten childhood as a minefield (even as child mortality rates reach historic lows), you can sell parents anything. They’ll pay any price for peace of mind — the peace that the products undermined to begin with.
5. The Illusion of control
This is the biggie. When my mom sent me, age 5, to walk to school, she didn’t worry if I didn’t text her when I got there, because there were no cellphones yet.
Ironically, now that we can be in constant touch with our kids, we are more nervous all the time, not less, because the minute we can’t reach our kid, what kicks in?
Panic! So now, with all the devices that can tell you where your kid is, and how many steps they took today, and what pictures did they post, who did they talk to, how did they do on their Spanish exam and what in God’s name are they looking at online, parents have a million new streams of worry.
What’s worse, now that you can know everything about your child every second of every day, anytime you choose not to know, you are making a conscious decision to opt out of your role as omniscient protector.
This means that now, if something bad does happen, instead of sympathy, the parent can expect a chorus of haters: “Why didn’t she GPS him?” “Why wasn’t she watching more closely?“ “Why wasn’t she with him?”
It is this double whammy of fear — that something terrible could happen (unlikely) and that everyone will blame you if it does (they might) — that is driving parents to helicopter.
It’s also driving busybodies to call 911 when they see a child outside unsupervised. They feel the child is in danger and the parents are negligent — even though the crime rate today is lower than when most adults were growing up, playing outside on their own.
6. Hallucinating danger
A fascinating study done at the University of California Irvine in 2016 tried to determine why we’ve become so eager to arrest or at least shame parents who do the kind of things our own parents did without a second thought, like let their kids walk to the store or wait in the car.
UC Irvine researchers Ashley J. Thomas, P. Kyle Stanford and Barbara Sarnecka asked 1,200 people to rate how much danger unsupervised kids faced in different situations. The only thing the researchers varied was the reason the kids were left unsupervised.
In one survey question, for instance, they presented the story of a child waiting 30 minutes in a car because her mom had been dropping off a book at the library but was hit by a car and temporarily knocked unconscious.
Other survey takers were told the child was left in the car the same amount of time but the reason for mom’s absence was different: She was working, volunteering, exercising or (gasp) off to see her lover.
While all five groups of respondents felt the child was in danger, the group that judged the danger the lowest was the group told that the mom was unconscious — in other words, that the mom did not mean to leave her child unattended; it was an accident.
The groups told that the mom was doing anything else felt the child was in more danger, and the group told that the mom was having an affair felt the child was in the most danger.
In other words, “People felt it was more immoral to leave a child voluntarily than involuntarily,” said professor Sarnecka. “And once you think only a bad mom would leave her kid in that situation, then your belief about how dangerous it is goes up.”
So our perception of danger goes up the more judgmental we feel toward the mom. And now that parents can watch their kids all the time, physically or electronically, not watching them is considered immoral because it’s dangerous, and dangerous because it’s immoral.
But it is neither.
Teaching our kids the age-old lessons — how to cross the street safely, never get into someone’s car, stay alert — ultimately makes them street-smart, confident and . . . safer. These are the kids who can think and fend for themselves. They are the ones who will succeed at college and the crazy economy headed their way.
Now it’s time for the rest of America to do the same.