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Age Limits on Childhood Don't Make Sense

Lenore Skenazy on

A few years back, after the first "Free Range Parenting" law passed in Utah -- a great day for childhood independence -- my nonprofit received a query from a lawmaker. Inspired, he wanted his state to pass a similar law that allowed parents to grant their kids some freedom to play outside, stay home alone, walk to school, etc., and it would not be mistaken for neglect. And so, he said, he'd drafted a bill:

Parents are not to be investigated or accused of neglect simply for letting their children, age 10 and up, engage in independent childhood activities.

He expected us to be excited!

We were not.

In fact, as we gently explained, this was a law we could not endorse.

In the three years we've been advocating on this score, we've often encountered well-intended people such as that lawmaker who believe the right to childhood independence should be granted -- but only to children above a certain age. Usually, the suggested age is much higher than we know many children could manage.


These lawmakers are well-intentioned, but they miss a basic fact of parenting: Sometimes a nine-year-old is playing outside with his four-year-old sister. Is that okay or not? Under a law with age limits, it isn't -- not if a child can't be outside without adult supervision till age nine.

Or what if, suddenly, a mom has to leave her twin six-year-olds at home because of a work or family emergency? A law stating, "not until age nine" criminalizes this seat-of-the-pants decision that has nothing to do with neglect and everything to do with the fact that life is not perfect or predictable enough to insist on one-size-fits-all age limits.

We know people may say: "But without an age limit, parents may think they can send their two-year-old outside to play at 10 p.m.!" To which we reply: "We are not nuts. That behavior concerns us, too, which is why the laws always state that parents are allowed to determine what age they think their kids are ready for some unsupervised time, BUT they must not leave their kids in obvious danger."

A two-year-old allowed to wander in traffic in the dark IS in obvious danger, so it is prohibited by our "Reasonable Childhood Independence" laws.


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