5 ways to reclaim the “free-range” neighborhood
By Jennifer Lade - March 27, 2019

Recently, I wrote about a new “free-range parenting” law South Carolina is considering. The proposed law mirrors one enacted by Utah last year. Both are trying to protect parents from neglect charges for things like letting their kids play unsupervised at a playground. They are a response to situations in which parents were prosecuted or otherwise tormented for using their discretion about when their kids could be left alone.

We aren’t talking about toddlers playing near highways. We are talking about school-age children doing things that a generation ago would have been commonplace.

One example is the Meitiv family, who let their children, ages 10 and 6 at the time, play alone at a playground near their home in Maryland. On the children’s walk home, police officers picked them up, promising to drive them home. Instead, police and Child Protective Services detained them for hours, and no one called their parents. The Meitivs were subjected to a CPS investigation.

Another case involves Debra Harrell, a single mom from South Carolina. She allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play at a park while she worked her shift at McDonald’s. Rather than keeping an eye on the child, someone at the park called police instead. Harrell spent 17 days in jail and temporarily lost custody of her daughter.

Stories like these are widely publicized. It makes run-ins with the police seem more commonplace than they are. They contribute to parents’ fear that “authorities” will take their kids away. That, in turn, creates a more restrictive parenting culture. But it’s not fear of legal repercussions, but fear of harassment by neighbors, that keeps some parents hovering over their kids.

Most people will not get arrested for their free-range parenting choices. But they will get yelled at, lectured, and met with looks of disapproval.

We should all learn to have thick skin and not let criticism faze us. But it does not come naturally to many people, myself included. I often take criticism to heart and start questioning my own judgment when it comes to what I have allowed my kids to do.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who is sensitive to remarks about my parenting. And over the course of a child’s life, those remarks can add up. I try not to let them change how I parent, but I would be lying if I said they don’t affect me. After receiving criticism, I’m more likely to hover, second-guess myself, and allow fewer freedoms to my kids.

Luckily, my immediate neighbors are friendly and nonjudgmental. One allows the kids to play on their swing set and play fetch with their dog. Another allows us to use her pool. A third welcomes my kids into her house for cookies, but will call me to let me know that she has them.

These generous, down-to-earth people have given my children that neighborhood experience so many of us grew up with. And they counteract the naysayers and busybodies who panic or lecture if I’m not supervising my kids to their standards.

More than the specific state laws, good neighbors like mine can make all the difference in parents allowing their children more freedom. Freedom to navigate their town, learning how to safely cross the street. Freedom to play with their friends and sort out an argument without adult intervention. In short, the freedom to learn maturity and gain confidence in their own abilities.

Whether or not you have children, there are many things you can do to encourage parents to be more “free-range.” And none of it has to do with legislation.

1. Remember your own childhood.

I bet some of your best memories from your early life involve free time with friends. Things like riding bikes, sledding, playing in the woods, and walking home from school. Was an adult with you at all times during these experiences? Not likely. If you feel like panicking because you see a child enjoying the same freedom you did, stop! Try to remember the benefits those formative experiences had on you.

Peter Gray, a research psychologist and proponent of free play for children, writes in Psychology Today about the large amounts of free time afforded children of previous generations and all the positive outcomes:

In the 1920s & ‘30s when my parents were kids, in 1950s when I was a kid, and even in the 1970s when my son was a kid, children spent huge amounts of their non-school time outdoors, playing and exploring with friends, with no adults around. In that freedom, children practiced and learned the most important skills of life, skills that cannot be taught in school. They learned how to create their own activities, solve their own problems, make friends, negotiate with peers, deal with bullies, and manage their emotions. In other words, they learned how to take charge of their own lives. In that process, they acquired the kinds of skills that promote confidence and resilience and protect people from depression, anxiety, and suicide.

2. Know the statistics and behave accordingly.

Children are safer now than they were 20 years ago, according to a Washington Post article, which cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics. Child mortality rates have fallen by nearly half. Reports of missing children are down 40 percent. And child pedestrian deaths fell from 800 per year to fewer than 250.

So the things that parents and neighbors fear will happen to children if they are unsupervised are much less likely to happen than they used to be.

The most dangerous thing a child will do in a given day is be a passenger in a moving vehicle. Injuries due to transportation were the leading cause of death among children older than 4. Drowning was the leading injury cause of death for children ages 1 to 4.

Armed with this information, you can know exactly what to freak out about. And it boils down to cars and bodies of water. So buckle up, drive safely, fence off your pool, and watch kids when they’re swimming. Then give them space in statistically safer environments.

3. Give parents support.

Let your neighbors with kids know that you approve of their free-range parenting. Tell them how nice it is that the kids play outside. Tell them they can use your yard to play soccer anytime. These little words of encouragement mean the world to parents, who might be wondering what you think of them.

If you have the means, you can go a step farther and lend a hand. Maybe you’re out on your porch when the neighbor’s kids come outside. Tell the parents that you’ll keep an eye on them. If the children are almost old enough to be left home alone, let the parents know that you would be OK with being called in an emergency if the parents wanted to run a quick errand and leave the children home.

Are there other ways you could make a situation safer for the neighborhood children? It could be as simple as moving your parked car to allow greater visibility down the street. It could be talking up the “nice young family” to your friends so that they see the free-range kids in a positive light. It might be scanning for cars if you see a child about to cross the street.

In a past generation, this type of shared parenting was more common. People looked out for one another’s kids as a matter of course. It relieves the pressure from the mother (or father) of being the single person concerned for their child’s welfare, all day and every day.

4. Call police only as a last resort.

Except in true life-or-death emergencies, wait before calling the authorities on your neighbor when they make a parenting decision you don’t agree with. There are so many ways to resolve an issue before getting police involved.

Say you see a parent leave a child alone in a car and head into a store. Rather than whip out your cell phone and dial 9-1-1, consider the risk. Is the weather mild? Is the car parked safely? If so, the kid is fine for a few minutes. If possible, stay nearby until the parent returns to the car. If more time is passing and the kid seems upset or the car is becoming dangerously hot or cold, you can go find the parent. If the parent doesn’t return to the car at that point, then calling police seems justified.

Of course, it’s easier to call for help than confront someone. But think about your goal. If your goal is to keep the child safe in the moment, your presence is enough. If your goal is to punish the parent, know that the child will end up punished too.

Maybe you would have made different decisions for your children than this parent did. But is their decision so irresponsible that it warrants fines and jail time? Don’t forget that having a parent go to jail is traumatic for the child, too. If police get involved, things are going to get more stressful for that family, children included.

Of course, the opposite is true in cases of actual neglect or abuse. Then you want police involved. But a casual encounter with a parent in a parking lot won’t give you enough information to know for sure. Better to  . . .

5. Err on the side of minding your own business.

It’s completely fine if you want to keep to yourself rather than go above and beyond as a neighbor. You don’t need to have the neighborhood children trampling your flower beds. It’s not your job to look out for them. But the least you can do is live and let live.

Laws protecting free-range parents — and by extension, childhoods — are a good thing. But the attitudes of neighbors and family members will do even more to encourage parents to let their children outside to play. It will give them the idyllic childhood many of us enjoyed and all the social benefits that go with it.