Idaho Introduces a 'Free-Range Parenting' Bill

It would prevent parents with independent kids from being charged with neglect.

boy on a scooter

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Idaho could become the next state to have a law that protects free-range parenting. The "Reasonable Childhood Independence Act," as it's called, was introduced by Rep. Ron Nate. It would protect both children and parents from Idaho's current open-ended definition of neglect, which Nate described as leaving “parents exposed to frivolous allegations of neglect or even unnecessary actions taken by authorities.”

This Act (H77) would protect a parent's right to raise their child in a way that might be perceived as risky by some, but is in fact part of a conscious effort to instill a greater sense of independence and resilience in that child. It would recognize that some children are more mature than others and capable of handling more responsibility. The Act would protect families across the economic spectrum by recognizing that parents can allow their children to engage in the following actions without facing automatic punishment.

  • Walk to and from school and other places
  • Play outside
  • Be home alone for a reasonable amount of time
  • Remain in a vehicle if it isn’t dangerously hot or cold
  • Engage in similar independent activities except if the parent is showing conscious disregard of a child’s safety

In other words, this Act would ensure that parents don't get in trouble for letting their kids do things that were considered perfectly normal in bygone decades, while acknowledging that parents are uniquely able to determine whether or not their own child can handle certain challenges; that judgment should not be left up to an unknown police officer or judge who has never met the family before.

There have been several high-profile cases in recent years that have raised the alarm over how broadly child neglect laws can be applied. One was a family in Maryland whose 10- and 6-year-old children were picked up and held by police after their parents had said they could walk home from the park. Another was a single mother in South Carolina who let her 9-year-old daughter play alone in a park while she worked a shift at a nearby McDonald's. The mother was thrown in jail and the daughter was taken away from her for 17 days when someone called to report it.

No parent wants to experience that or have their child suffer through something similar, which can lead to paranoia about keeping one's children close. This can stunt a child's natural urge to explore and gain independence.

Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, an organization that advocates for children's greater independence, spoke with Treehugger about Idaho's proposed law:

"We are very excited about the Reasonable Childhood Independence law being proposed in Idaho – and several other states. It simply narrows the neglect laws, which are often so vague that parents don't know if, say, they are actually allowed to let their children play outside, or stay home for a little bit. Let Grow did a study of all 50 states' neglect laws – here's the map so you can look up yours – and found 47 states' laws were really open- ended. The law in Idaho will reassure parents that they don't have to second-guess themselves in making everyday decisions. So long as you are not consciously disregarding obvious and serious dangers, you – not the government – are allowed to decide what makes sense for your particular child. This is not only good for parents and kids, it's good for Child Protective Services which can concentrate on cases of actual abuse and neglect."

Rep. Ron Nate told Treehugger over email that the proposed law would clarify child neglect as “actually putting kids in obvious danger or denying them truly necessary care.” It would not include “normal actions by parents for encouraging reasonable childhood independence activities.” He went on:

“The bill is a benefit to both parents and children because parents will be more inclined to allow their children to engage in independence activities and learn to plan, socialize, and experience life without an adult always hovering around. This bill removes the effective mandate on 'helicopter parenting.' Kids will benefit from the greater learning and experience opportunities. Children with more reasonable independence activities will have a better chance of becoming successful, responsible, and productive adults.”

Nate says he was inspired by Utah's free-range parenting law, which took effect in 2018. At the time of its creation, the law's sponsor said that, although Utah had no history of parents being investigated by child protective services under circumstances like the ones described above, this law ensured it never would.

Idaho's Act is refreshing news for a society that desperately needs to loosen up and “let grow” when it comes to children. The more we can empower parents to allow their children reasonable freedom and independence, the better off everyone will be in the long run.

The Act is scheduled for a full Committee hearing later this week.