Recently, the citizens of Utah passed a law that permits for Free Range Parenting. Under this law, a child who has been provided with basic needs like food, shelter and adequate clothing, and is of an appropriate age and maturity level to assess risk and avoid harm, may be allowed to independently participate in activities such as walking to school, visiting parks, playing outside, and going to nearby stores.
This law may be horrific to people who would be categorized as “helicopter parents,” or those who are radically overprotective and obsessively involved in their children’s lives and activities. Personally, I have no problem with people who choose to always err on the side of caution with their own children. The people best able to determine the needs of a child are the parents.
However, I realized that while helicopter parents are afraid of harm coming to their children and their goal is to protect them, my biggest fear as a mom is another mom. Last week, I was at the home of a friend that happens to be right across the street from a park. My two eldest children are boys, ages 10 and 8, and they were bursting with energy, so I decided to let them play in the park while I watched from across the street. At no point were they going to be unsupervised, but even if they had been alone, I wasn’t concerned about anything “bad” or “scary” happening to them. I helped them cross the street, and then watched while they began to play. After a few moments, this thought creeped in: What if another parent sees them there without their parent hovering nearby and calls the police or CPS to report what they perceive to be a situation of neglect?
In my experience, the park is already a breeding ground for parental judgment. I once overheard two women making derogatory comments about another woman who was sitting on a bench doing something on her phone, while the child she was with played nearby with other children. My first instinct was to point out that if they were paying as close attention to their own kids as they were expecting this lady to, they wouldn’t have been able to notice what she was doing at all. Instead, I went to sit by the lady, and got my phone out, because sometimes as moms we take our kids to the park because we’ve already spent all morning playing Candyland and hide and seek and Legos, and now we just need a small break to experience adulthood, even if that comes in the form of checking email or connecting with a friend via text. Sometimes, we just need another mom to be understanding and sympathetic rather than accusatory and snarky.
My boys played for about 20 minutes. Essentially, they do this every day when they are at school, multiple times. They play outside without me. When they were ready to come back, they walked to the spot I told them to go when they wanted to cross the street, and I helped them do so. As they were walking back I was contemplating whether or not my presence would have mattered. My 10 year old is only a few inches shorter than I am and likely weighs almost as much as I do. He also has a phone and could dial 911 or me if necessary. Had anything violent happened, he would have likely tried to protect me just as much as I would have protected him, and he might have been more successful at deterring a “bad guy.” I imagine they enjoyed the small bit of freedom and strengthened their bond as brothers through the experience. I should not have to be more afraid of other parents’ judgment and actions in response to my parenting choices. My kids have everything they need and more, but they could benefit from learning some independence, and I should be permitted to help them do so in the way I believe to be best for them.
We should be able to rely on each other as parents. If I were at a park with my kids and observed older children without a parent within five feet of them, I wouldn’t assume they are unsupervised and being neglected. Instead, I’d keep my eyes on them as well and be prepared to help in the event of danger or injury. Common sense should prevail in situations like these, but in our fear-dominated society, often times irrational thinking leads to escalation in such a way that is more harmful to children than allowing them to have some independence. For this reason, we need to to work towards a middle ground where childhood self government is not equated with neglect or abuse.
Anna Layer lives in Hartford with her three children. She can be reached at email@example.com.