Children Are Now Protected by 'Reasonable Independence' Laws in 3 States

Parents need not fear investigation for letting kids engage in normal behaviors.

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The state of Texas just passed a law (HB 567) that protects a child's right to "reasonable independence." This means children will be allowed to engage in normal childhood activities, like walking to school, sitting unattended in a car for short periods of time, or staying home alone, without their parents being accused of neglect and possibly getting investigated by the authorities. 

Texas is the third state to pass such a law, after Utah and Oklahoma. Independent play advocates are thrilled because Texas has a population of 29.1 million people, which means when the populations of the other two states are considered, roughly one-tenth of Americans (34 million) are now protected by these laws. Hopefully, that's a big enough chunk of the population to start changing the culture of helicopter-type parenting.

Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free Range Kids" and founder of the Let Grow non-profit, spoke to Treehugger about this monumental occasion. "Getting Texas is so fantastic," she gushes over a Zoom call, pointing out to this Canadian writer that, combined with the other two states, 34 million people isn't too far off Canada's entire population of 38 million. 

She went on to explain that we are dealing with a flawed system in which bystanders report unattended children because they want to be helpful, but then give it to authorities who don't have a way not to investigate. They must start an investigation because a complaint has been lodged. 

"We'd like that not to have to happen if the circumstances are simply that a kid was walking to school," Skenazy explains. "What these laws do in terms of parenting is allow you to stop second-guessing yourself when you know what you have to do and what's best for your kid. And sometimes what you have to do is not what you would love to do."

Financial instability is a complicating factor in these investigations because often children are left alone out of necessity, not because a parent doesn't know what they're doing. To interpret certain things as neglect simply because of what it is on paper doesn't take into account real life, and this law does.

Skenazy gives the example of a single mom running to catch a 7:15 a.m. bus to get to her job, but there's only one per hour and the babysitter hasn't shown up yet. The mom has to choose between losing her job or trusting her six-year-old to be alone for 20 minutes till the sitter arrives. Now, Texan parents in that situation no longer need to fear possible repercussions.

"The law recognizes that when you're doing that, it's not because you're a neglectful parent, it's because you don't have the means to provide constant supervision, even when you want it." And that, Skenazy explains, is because "people stretched thin don't have the same resources that wealthier ones do to supervise their kids constantly." 

This flawed system affects countless families in the United States. Roughly 37% of all American children will be contacted by Child Protective Services (CPS) at some point in their lives. If you're a Black family, that number rises to 53%. So laws like this one "provide a little more equity," to quote Nevada senator Dallas Harris, who's been trying to pass a similar law in her own state.

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When asked what CPS thinks of the new law, Skenazy makes it clear that CPS does incredibly important work. "We venerate CPS. The last thing we want is kids getting hurt. We don't want to see any kid starved, beaten, or literally neglected," Skenazy says. "So we feel that, by removing these excessive cases, CPS can do what we dearly want them to do, and what they do do, which is to investigate serious cases of abuse and neglect.

"I hope that CPS does not think we are disparaging them. We are hoping to have a sea change in the culture whereby seeing a child unsupervised but fine doesn't raise anyone's hackles or open any kind of case," she adds. "And I think that [CPS] would be glad because nobody wants to waste their time."

Let Grow, the organization that Skenazy founded in response to the immense support she received after publishing "Free Range Kids," is actively involved in passing these reasonable independence laws in several states. It pulls together stakeholder groups with representatives from CPS, parents, teachers, psychologists, district attorneys, public defenders, and lawmakers willing to sponsor a bill. 

Often the laws take several tries to pass. Texas failed its first attempt two years ago, and South Carolina's effort didn't pass in the House before COVID shut it down, so it will have to wait another two years.

Nevada's law, which was co-sponsored by a gay Black Democratic mom of one and a straight White Republican grandma of 20, didn't pass this year, but Skenazy says she's hopeful it will next year. About the Nevada law, she tells Treehugger that the Democrat sponsor joked, "If you see both of us sponsoring a law, it's either a really bad idea or a really good one! We think it’s a really good idea."

Skenazy goes on to say that, in light of the Texas victory, she's excited for kids, for parents, and for moms especially. "Sometimes I think of free range kids as being about trusting people, of giving everyone the benefit of the doubt," instead of assuming everyone's out to cause harm. "Treating everyone as suspicious and possibly terrible is not only a depressing way to live, but it's also statistically incorrect and it's not rational to think the worst of everyone. You can have a much better life if you think better of people."

Not to mention an easier life as a parent, if you don't feel you have to monitor your child every minute of the day or fear being punished for allowing your child that freedom. We'd all be better off with these reasonable independence laws governing our states (and provinces). 

And we'll probably be hearing more about them. As Skenazy says, "When you think about, one-tenth of America... That can't be a crazy idea because it's sort of mainstream." 

View Article Sources
  1. "HB 567." Texas Legislature Online.