The law takes sides, and that’s even true when it comes to parenting styles. In the latest New Jersey Law Journal, two family law attorneys explain how.
“The laws governing family court actions can endorse or discourage a specific parenting style, which can be a factor in how parents are legally permitted to raise their children,” write Sandra C. Fava and Katherine A. Nunziata.
They go on to point out that New Jersey’s law on child neglect, for example “leaves free-range parents susceptible to attacks on their parental fitness if the free rein afforded to their children is interpreted as a dereliction of the parents’ duty to attend to the child’s well-being.”
The article is titled “Helicopter vs. Free Range: Endorsement of Parenting Style in the Law,” and it’s an important discussion of an escalating clash of cultures.
In the name of protecting children, overly-cautious state policies are denying the next generation from tasting the freedom most of us adults enjoyed. Science is beginning to confirm what we already knew to be true: Freedom in the formative years teaches resilience, resourcefulness, and grit.
Even if parents are inclined to give their children the sort of childhood they loved, an overprotective culture of parenting and proscriptive state policies stand in the way.
Across the nation, parents are subject to child welfare or even criminal investigation for improper supervision if they put a child in any situation authorities believe exposes them to risk. The issue is this: While there has never been a safer time to be a child in America, there’s no such thing as a zero-risk activity.
For instance, driving kids to the dentist exposes them to the possibility of dying in a car crash. But we don’t criminalize it.
Similarly, giving children some independence, like letting them walk to school, also exposes them to a risk of harm — no matter how unlikely. (Crime is at 50-year low.) But by focusing on that particular possibility, states can pretty much investigate any parent anytime their children are not in their direct supervision.
But there’s a growing movement to bring back some common sense to child welfare laws.
Utah enacted a law in March that will give some freedom to both generations – the kids who need some independence, and the parents who worry how the authorities might interpret that.
Utah’s SB65, sponsored by State Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, says neglect does not include “permitting a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.”
These activities include walking to school, running errands, playing outside and even coming home with a latchkey.
Some people believe that any time parents let children out of their sight, they’re putting those children in harm’s way. When this stubborn delusion gets codified into law, it pressures parents into adopting those “helicopter” practices that the New Jersey Law Journal discusses.
Parents who reject this style and want to give their children a healthy, old-fashioned childhood are second- guessed by society, and often by the authorities.
One example is the case of the Meitiv family in Maryland: Danielle and Alexander Meitiv were investigated not once but twice for the “crime” of letting their kids, then 10 and 6, walk home from the park in Silver Spring.
They were eventually acquitted, but at what cost? Why should any parent have to go through that? That’s why lawmakers everywhere must address the issue. When helicopter parenting becomes the law of the land any parent who, by choice or necessity, is not velcroed to their kids 24/7 risks a possible investigation.
In 2015, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) added a Free-Range amendment to the Every Child Succeeds act. It said that parents can decide how they want their kids to get to school — by car, foot or bike. But he added that states have the right to override that provision. As he wrote back then:
It’s a scene as American as apple pie. Neighborhood children are playing together at a park. Then, as the sun starts to fade and their stomachs start to rumble, the children scatter and begin the journey back to their various homes….
[But today] parents are being investigated or prosecuted for simply allowing their kids to walk to school or play in the park by their house without direct parental supervision.
What makes this concerning is that it’s these types of predictable, parent-free experiences that teach children to use their judgment and to develop problem-solving skills…. The government should not be intimidating parents from deciding how best to cultivate them in their children.
Utah has chosen to protect parents, without weakening child protective services or the police. It does not give a free pass to abusers.
The rest of America deserves the same right. Utah’s Free-Range Law passed both houses unanimously. It’s a popular bill because it gives our kids the thing we all loved most at their age — freedom.