Free to roam: Utah’s first-of-its-kind ‘free-range parenting’ law takes effect

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Scott Allen and his wife Rachel are joined by Rachel's mother Jane Danowit as they spend time in their backyard home in Salt Lake on Thursday, May 3, 2018, with their young daughters Audrey, 3, and Cora, 11-weeks. Scott says he wants to raise his kids as free range but his toddler is "constantly trying to kill herself." His wife tends to be a little more vigilant in looking after the kids. As doctors, they're trying to balance a free range childhood with safety practices to prevent their kids experiencing the injuries they witness at work every day. Utah is believed to be the first state to pass a law that prevents parents from being prosecuted for allowing mature kids with good judgement to do things alone, provided they are otherwise cared for.

Father of four Eric Pomeroy describes himself as a “be back by dark” kind of parent.

His children, reared on a long leash, are “free-range” kids. They play and romp and explore the world around their St. George home, often unsupervised, much as Pomeroy was while growing up in Hawaii.

But his wife, he notes, is more of a “tell me where you’ll be” kind of parent.

“Boys think about all the stupid things they did growing up and think, ‘We survived,’” Pomeroy said. “My wife is the one who sees stuff on the news and gets panicky.”

The balance between these two seemingly conflicting parenting styles is at the center of a national debate, bolstered by Utah’s newly minted “free-range parenting” law, which takes effect Tuesday.

Believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, the law attempts to prevent parents from being prosecuted under child-neglect statutes for simply allowing mature kids with good judgment to do things alone — provided they are otherwise cared for and are “of sufficient age and maturity.”

The legislation, adopted during the most recent session of the Utah Legislature, is worded intentionally vaguely, supporters said, so police and prosecutors might evaluate possible situations of neglect on a case-by-case basis.

Kids being kids

When it comes to parenting, some believe childhood should resemble their own wild youths, with days spent beyond the gaze of adults. Others believe it is a parent’s responsibility to ensure a child grows up in an environment safe from the world’s harm. Still others say the line falls somewhere in between.

“My daughter could get kidnapped, sure, but she could also be hit by lightning and hit by a car,” Pomeroy said. “If I hold her back now, I’m holding her back for life. I am kind of bummed out that it had to be a law because parents are afraid to let their kids be kids.”

Despite giving pretty lax supervision, Pomeroy said he still finds himself being a little more hands on with his children than his own parents were.

“My parents never really knew where I was,” he said, recalling times when he and friends stole dumpster lids, hooked them to the back of a truck and drove around “sledding.” Pomeroy has told his kids this story, but with the caveat of explaining how illegal that turned out to be.

“They’re going to find something dumb to do,” he said. “If I had to choose between my kid sexting or my kid sledding with a dumpster lid, please sled all day long.”

Origins of the free-range parenting movement are traced back to 2008, when New York resident Lenore Skenazy published a column about leaving her then-9-year-old in a department store and letting him find his own way home on the subway. The article touched off a fiery debate, with Skenazy earning the moniker of “world’s worst mom.”

However, perhaps in reaction to an age of overmanaging, so-called “helicopter parents,“ the pendulum of public opinion has since begun to swing back in favor of less supervision over childhood play, with Utah’s new law endorsing “free-range” parenting — within reason.

It specifically gives a green light to unsupervised walking, running or biking to and from school, or to the neighborhood park or store; engaging in outdoor play; remaining unattended in a safe and fully ventilated vehicle; staying home unattended; or “engaging in a similar independent activity.”

Still, not everyone Utahn agrees this is a good thing.

‘Not quite safe enough’

Santaquin resident Scott Brighton describes himself as a protective parent who believes the Utah law creates a solution to a problem that does not exist.

“It’s so easy to think we live in this bright happy world, but I guess I’ve just seen enough examples of things that are not that way,” said the father of three adolescents. “For the most part, it is a safe, good world. But when it comes to your kids’ safety, it’s not quite safe enough to let them run free.”

Indeed, Brighton was not alone in his concerns. Several people shared with The Salt Lake Tribune both fond and chilling memories from their younger years that might be considered outrageous or terrifying by modern standards.

One man recalled how, when he was 17, his parents indulged his request to pile into a car with a gaggle of teens and drive sans adults to San Francisco for a weekend of fun. Others described times when they saw strangers expose themselves or were nearly lured into the backs of unknown cars.

Brighton wants to let his kids make their own decisions — provided, he said, those judgment calls fall within parameters of his approval.

“My 15-year-old would love to sit and play video games all day long, but we encourage him to do more,” Brighton said. “I don’t think I’m very controlling, but I just like to make sure their choices are good.”

Kim Babka, a parent and educator in the Granite School District, said there needs to be a balance between letting children take risks and explaining to them the consequences of those risks. A child allowed to roam free benefits developmentally, she said, but also needs to understand safety concepts such as traffic signs.

“Part of development is being able to learn those things on their own,” Babka said of her handful of kids. “If we’re always going from organized play dates to organized sports, we’re taking away a lot of choices and experiences for them.”

Unstructured time

Babka’s own children participated in organized activities growing up, but she was careful to grant permission when her kids wanted to make their own fun.

“‘Can we take firewood and build a fort?’ Sure. ‘Can we build an ice shelf and sit on it?’ Sure,” she said. “You really need to make time to be unstructured, and how ironic is that?”

Salt Lake City resident Scott Allen said he hopes to strike that balance for his daughters one day. He wants his kids to get close to danger, but not too much danger. The dad of two concedes he probably got into a little too much trouble during his own youth, spent climbing over southern Utah.

“I’ll admit, we set a lot of fires,” he said, “and lit a lot of bottle rockets.”

These days, Allen and his wife are anesthesiologists who work in a hospital burn unit, so they’ve seen worst-case scenarios when children get hurt, and he considers himself lucky, given his own childhood shenanigans.

Part of the challenge of being a “free-range” parent is deciding at what age a child can appropriately begin to have those adventures, he said.

“I have a toddler who is constantly trying to kill herself,” he said, “so I have to be a little more vigilant.”

Allen hopes the girls will one day freely ride around the neighborhood on bikes ― with helmets, of course. He won’t let them play football for fear of concussions, but maybe they can build a fire unattended once they’re teenagers.

And he said the jury is still out on when — if at all — they’ll get cellphones.

“There’s a happy medium,” he said, “for allowing some wildness and some feralness in kids.”