Is Free-Range Parenting a Crime?


Illustration by Andrea Ucini. (Source)

If your parenting style doesn’t mesh with shifting cultural expectations, is that against the law?



It only takes about 50 steps to get from Monica and Devon Jones’ Stapleton house to the pocket park across the street—maybe 100 if you’re a pint-size person.

In fact, when the Joneses bought their house in 2014, they picked it in part because of its proximity to the green space: They could see the playground from the front porch.

On August 21, 2017, Monica Jones stood on that porch and watched her four-and-a-half-year-old daughter confidently take those 100 steps to cross the street and join her friends at the playground.

It was the day of the solar eclipse, and a number of neighborhood kids and adults had gathered there; Monica’s daughter had asked to play with them. Monica knew some of the parents in the park, and the Joneses had been working with their daughter for months on crossing the street, so Monica felt comfortable letting her child go on her own while she watched.

“We wanted to give her a little taste of freedom and independence,” she says.

The Joneses’ daughter made the trip unscathed and spent the next couple of hours going between her house and her friends, with her mom watching from the porch and through the windows.

A couple of weeks later, there was a knock on the Joneses’ door. Someone who had seen the little girl playing unsupervised had called the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS) hotline to report the incident, and now two caseworkers were standing on the Joneses’ porch.

They introduced themselves and asked to come in. Monica wasn’t home, but Devon invited the caseworkers into the kitchen, where they delivered some shocking news: They were there to investigate an allegation of neglect.

The Joneses are not the first family to have such child-rearing practices questioned.

In 2009, Lenore Skenazy earned the nickname “America’s worst mom” after writing a New York Sun column about letting her nine-year-old ride the subway home on his own.

Writer Kim Brooks was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor (her son) when she left the four-year-old in the car on a 50-degree day while she ran into a store for five minutes.

Other parents have faced felony neglect charges for similar actions. The allegations and subsequent court cases appear to stem from growing cultural differences in beliefs about what qualifies as appropriate supervision today.

The term “helicopter parent” first appeared in the American lexicon in 1990, when researchers Foster Cline and Jim Fay coined the term to describe parents who curtailed their children’s independence by constantly supervising them.

The Joneses count themselves among a growing number of “free-range” parents, who believe in fostering independence in children and relying less on supervision.

Free-range parenting has been popularized…. by Skenazy, who penned the book Free-Range Kids following her excoriation for letting her son ride the subway alone.

She later founded Let Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to countering what she views to be overprotective parenting.

“We’re sort of imprisoning our own kids these days,” says Let Grow executive director Tracy Tomasso. “We think we’re not doing any harm by keeping them inside, but we are: By taking away their internal locus of control, it’s no surprise that kids are more anxious these days.”

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