On a recent sunny day in Portland, Oregon, Dana Hoffman Ellis waited at a stop for the light rail train that crisscrosses the city.
Ellis wasn’t riding herself. Instead, she was waiting for the arrival of her 9-year-old child, Salmon, who had just embarked on a solo adventure across town using public transit.
Many parents fret over their children’s efforts toward independence and find themselves hovering in the name of safety.
But embracing self-sufficiency isn’t new territory for Ellis: Her two now-adult children took similar unaccompanied treks, tromping a mile alone to the grocery store at just 6 years old and even navigating solo travel through Canada, China, and Thailand as young teens.
“They are so proud of themselves when they do grown-up things like get themselves around!” Ellis said of her children.
After years of worries that “helicopter parents” were stifling children, Ellis is part of a growing number of parents who want to give their kids a little freedom by participating in “free-range” parenting. And some are even changing laws to protect this freedom.
Changing ideas of neglect
Decades ago, it was largely unremarkable to have kids run errands on their own or let them play outside in the neighborhood alone. But in recent years, some parents have faced legal consequences for letting their children roam, including being charged with neglect.
On May 8, Utah will become the first state to essentially protect “free-range” parenting after the legislature passed a law that changes what’s considered child neglect. Now the state recognizes that parents can permit “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.”
Lawmakers say the intent of the legislation is twofold: to protect parents who allow their children reasonable independence, like traveling unaccompanied to and from school or recreational activities; and to minimize “nuisance” calls that stretch authorities thin and prevent them from focusing on cases of actual child neglect.
Out of the helicopter and into the wild
While so-called “helicopter parents” may end up restricting a child’s early independence, free-ranging families do the opposite. Taken literally, “free range” refers to livestock kept under natural conditions.
For free-range parents, freedom and independence are in fact the natural conditions of childhood. And supporting the development of confidence and self-sufficiency is, they insist, the natural function of parenting.
Lyla Wolfenstein, a parenting educator and lactation consultant based in Portland, Oregon, describes this as a gradual release of responsibility from the parent to the child, reminiscent of what teachers call “scaffolding.”
“The skills to make good decisions only come from practice, and the decisions kids have to make only get more risky as they get older,” she told Healthline. “So, if they don’t practice while they can rely on your advice, wisdom, and support, they will make many more — and more serious — mistakes as they get older.”
For Wolfenstein, free-range sensibilities offer children opportunities to solve real-world problems and build powerful skills before adolescence, ultimately developing an “innate sense of how to navigate tricky situations.”
Wolfenstein also points out that, given the ubiquity of cellphones, it’s never been easier to stay connected with children while allowing them the freedom to explore the world.
The arguments for minimizing childhood freedom usually center on a single issue: personal safety. The idea is that the world is a dangerous place and that unattended children are particular targets for both unsavory characters and deadly accidents.
However, proponents of expanding childhood freedom point to significant evidence that the world is actually safer than it has ever been.
A 2015 Washington Post article found that when it comes to all the dangers one might imagine unattended children face — death, abduction, traffic accidents — the incidence for all those things was “historically low and infinitesimally small.”
In fact, an unaccompanied child is more likely to be hit by lightning than experience premature death or stranger abduction.
Yet it doesn’t feel that way to many parents.
Cynthia Connolly, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Oregon, points out that while technological advances like cellphones provide comfort for some parents, other aspects of a media-saturated society have the opposite effect.
“We have greater access to so much more information about everything, especially about violent acts, as they are more likely to get ‘clicks’ than other news,” she told Healthline. “It sometimes makes it seem like the world is more dangerous despite the opposite being true.”
She also notes that monitoring for danger is an evolutionary mechanism, which makes it even more important to check anxieties against verifiable data, especially when making important decisions.
Potential other impacts of the new law
While many families cheer the new legal development in Utah, others note that it’s far from perfect — especially because its vague wording leaves room for double standards when it comes to applying the law.
In truth, the biggest risk most free-range parents face comes at the hands of well-meaning strangers.
Free-range families worry that a member of the greater community will interpret their careful curating of childhood independence as child neglect. Under the new law, this fear might remain true for groups that have been targeted in the past.
Unsubstantiated interventions for neglect have historically targeted people of color, working class and poor families, and parents with marginalized sexual or gender identities. As a result, it’s made free-range parenting riskier for some families than for others, even in places adding laws to the books.
Taking a more positive view
Isaiah Jackson, MA, a behavioral specialist based in Portland, Oregon, offers another way for wary parents to look at balancing their children’s freedom with perceived safety concerns.
“Feeling as though the world is generally unsafe limits one’s capacity for creativity and growth, as safety forms the basis of healthy human development,” he said.
In one sense, free-range parenting boils down to a desire to teach children an alternate worldview: The world is inherently safe, humans are mostly kind, and young people are definitely capable.
This is a significant departure from popular parenting lessons based on instilling “stranger danger” and hypervigilance in children for their protection.
For Ellis, free-range parenting is about empowering her children to feel at home and competent in the world.
“I have to admit, I’m so glad cellphones exist. But to see the pride on their faces, it’s totally worth it,” Ellis said of seeing her child arrive home after an excursion with a smile on their face.