South Carolina lawmakers are looking to pass a “free-range” parenting bill that will be a boon for parents who want to help their kids foster independence within safe guidelines.
The State reported that a state Senate panel recently endorsed a bill that would amend the state’s child abuse and neglect laws “to state that children who are old enough and mature enough don’t always have to have adult supervision.” It’s now been moved to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration. Legislation like this is good news for parents and children alike. The experiences of some families who have faced charges, litigation, or ridicule for exercising their parental rights in a safe way shows why more states should adopt similar measures.
Why We Need Legislation Like This
If you’ve ever left your children in your car to dash into a gas station, post office, or convenient store, only to stand in the checkout line full of fear—not that your children will be abducted or misbehave—but that someone might accuse you of parental negligence, you might find comfort knowing this is a real phenomenon.
Multitasking like this used to be a normal occurrence for most busy parents of multiple children, but now some families are scorned and have even faced legal charges—sparking fear in the hearts of other parents—for simply trying to juggle parenting, work, and the rest of life, while raising children to the best of their abilities.
Toward the end of 2018, a New York Times opinion piece, appropriately named “Motherhood in the Age of Fear,” described what it was like for mothers to face legal consequences for decisions they’ve made that are as common sense-based as they are efficient.
The author, Kim Brooks, began with an anecdote about what happened after she left her young boy in the car to quickly run into a store. He was happily playing a game, she knew he was safe, and she would return within minutes. He was fine when she got back, but a stranger had spied on her and reported her “negligence” to local law enforcement. Eventually a police officer called her to tell her there was an outstanding warrant for her arrest, something about which she had been completely unaware.
“I spent the next months determining the best legal course of action, and also the best course of action for living with the humiliation of being accused of criminally negligent parenting,” she wrote.
Brooks’ entire column is chock-full of stories like this. The only reprieve is when one of those arrogant cops with a badge tried to intimidate a mother of three who was also a public defender. Brooks wrote:
“One day in 2016, Ms. Koehler let her three daughters wait in her minivan, watching ‘Dora the Explorer,’ while she grabbed a coffee […] The officer asked where she had been, and when she lifted her cup, he said, ‘So you abandoned your children?’
That’s when Ms. Koehler laughed. ‘It’s not against the law in Illinois to leave your children unattended. You have to prove that I’m willfully endangering their life by going into Starbucks and getting a cup of coffee where I can see them the whole time. Good luck getting that case approved by a state’s attorney.’”
Koehler’s legal background provided much-needed knowledge and chutzpah to ward off a bullying, nosy cop. Many other mothers are not as fortunate. Danielle Meitiv, from Silver Spring, Maryland, “made national headlines three years ago after she and her husband were charged with child neglect for letting their two children, ages 6 and 10, walk home from a park by themselves.”
A few years ago, two Florida parents were charged with neglect after neighbors reported the couple had let their 11 year-old son shoot hoops on the driveway until the couple got home from work.
Lenore Skenazy, founder of the “Free Range” parenting movement was called “America’s worst mom” after announcing to America a decade ago she let her 9-year-old son ride the New York City subway by himself.
Incidents Like These Aren’t Isolated
Brooks and the women she interviewed aren’t alone. Tales like this abound both in the piece and among my own circle of mom-friends.
A friend of mine who is a fantastic parent with multiple children said she has had the cops called on her three times for leaving her children in the car to quickly run mundane errands like dropping mail at the post office. Once she left her sleeping baby in the car for about seven minutes—locked and running so her baby wouldn’t get too hot. Even though she was doing what was best for her entire family—an errand with an infant can often take an additional 25–45 minutes due to feedings and diaper changes—she felt terrified that someone would call law enforcement on her.
I, too, have experienced the same almost irrational fear, both when leaving my older children alone at home, legally, to run a quick errand—even when they had phones and the neighbors were fully aware and keeping an ear out for issues—and when leaving my kids in the car while I ran into the gas station to get a coffee. Simple errands with multiple children can take precious time away from work or even their own schooling or sports. Consolidating what a parent can do in the safest way possible isn’t just smart, it’s good parenting.
Brooks expressed the anxiety many busy parents feel: “Once I realized what had happened, I felt like a terrible mother. I felt as though I’d been caught doing something very bad, even if I didn’t understand what the bad thing was, exactly, or what the rationale was for its badness. I felt, I think, what just about every woman feels when someone attacks her mothering: ashamed.”
When neighbors and law enforcement care more about enforcing an invisible social norm, piggybacking on the wave of helicopter parenting that has enmeshed the United States the last two decades, the result can be fear, shame, and over-parenting.
Big Government and Nosy Neighbors Create Fear, Not a Helpful Village
Remember when Hillary Clinton said it took a “village” to raise a child? Conservatives scoffed and liberals then scorned the right for failing to empathize with her socialist ideas. Fast forward years later and a village indeed has formed to “help” families raise their children—unfortunately it has often caused more harm than good. Instead of minding their own children, the “village,” comprised of nosy neighbors and bloated local law enforcement, began belittling, bullying, and even charging other parents with crimes if they failed to keep an eye on their child every waking moment.
Local government and law enforcement, with the help of certain kinds of arrogant, annoying, prickly personalities with no passion or purpose in life, institute absurd laws. Cops often approach parents about this even without laws on the books. These instances noticeably punish lower-class parents who are tirelessly trying to parent, work, or go to school—and it even affects the middle class.
Thankfully, some efforts have emerged to protect parents who try to foster growth and responsibility in their children, or even who are just trying to be efficient while juggling.
Legislation Like South Carolina’s Bill Is Necessary in the Face of Big Government
I’m typically not a proponent of lawmakers legislating everything under the sun, particularly parenting-related issues, but South Carolina is on the right track with their bill. Particularly when law enforcement and big government often collude to play “gotcha” with parents simply doing the best they can to multitask and juggle busy lives. Utah passed a very similar “free-range” parenting bill in the spring of 2018. It was the first of its kind. Both pieces of legislation will help safeguard against the types of incidents I’ve relayed.
Sen. Wes Climer (R-York) is a sponsor of the bill. “Being a kid, as we all understand it, is in many cases, unfortunately, criminalized through overzealous prosecution of the law. This is an attempt to push back on that a little bit, to say, ‘It is OK for a 10-year-old to walk down the street and go to the neighborhood park … or ride a bicycle to school,’” Climer said, according to The State newspaper.
Additionally, Climer said he wants to “create a little bit more space” in the life of single mothers “already struggling with so much,” so they don’t feel “persecuted by the state” and inadvertently run afoul of the law “when they’re trying to do the best they can for their families.”
Legislation like this safeguards children and parents from being called out by the state for something they haven’t done. It’s time law enforcement and the government recognized that in the majority of cases, parents should be able to make decisions about their children and their burgeoning independence.
Nicole Russell is a freelance writer and mother of four. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Politico, The Daily Beast, and the Federalist. Follow her on Twitter @russell_nm