'Free Range' Parenting's Unfair Double Standard

When poorer mothers and fathers let their children play unsupervised, they come under suspicion.

Two children on bikes
Sean Gallup / Getty

Every few decades, a new idea emerges about the “right” way to raise children. The 1990s saw the rise of the helicopter parent, those anxious middle- and upper-middle-class mothers and fathers who hover, imagining the worst-case scenario. Their fears led many states to pass laws aimed at keeping kids safe, including statutes that punish parents who leave their children at home alone or unattended in cars.

Today, new child-rearing norms are on the rise, with parents taking a more laissez-faire approach. “Free range” parenting, a reaction to the overbearing style of the previous generation, has become fashionable, even expected, among many of today’s parents.

In a corresponding shift, state laws are starting to catch up. Utah recently became the first state to explicitly legalize free-range parenting, with a new law stipulating that parents cannot be charged with neglect for allowing “a child, whose basic needs are met and who is of sufficient age and maturity to avoid harm or unreasonable risk of harm, to engage in independent activities.” Essentially, parents can now legally let their children “walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended”—things that may previously have attracted the attention of child-welfare authorities.

As this relatively new child-rearing philosophy is codified into law, it’s a good time to reflect on the consequences of it. Free-range parenting is certainly a warranted corrective to the ever-anxious helicopter parents, but it also, in ways not often fully appreciated, benefits some families more than others. Utah’s new law, and the broader free-range parenting movement, are susceptible to a problem of interpretation: What counts as “free-range parenting” and what counts as “neglect” are in the eye of the beholder—and race and class often figure heavily into such distinctions.

For some parents—poor and working-class parents, and especially poor and working-class parents of color—free-range parenting has long been a necessity, even if it didn’t previously get the virtuous-sounding label it has today. In the ’90s, the sociologists Kathryn Edin and Laura Lein studied single working mothers in Chicago, Boston, San Antonio, and Charleston, South Carolina. Those mothers often had no choice but to leave their kids at home, and they were certainly not the first to do so.

When children in poor and working-class families stay home or walk to school alone, their parents face considerable risks. In 2014, Debra Harrell, a 46-year-old black mother in South Carolina, was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play at the park while she was working at a nearby McDonald’s. Harrell spent the night in jail, and her daughter was placed in foster care for 17 days.

Harrell’s punishment may have been egregious and anomalous, but it’s something many fear in a society in which poor parents are often assumed to be bad parents—indeed, a recent Brookings Institute study showed that the vast majority of families investigated by child-welfare authorities are poor families, and especially poor families of color. In my own research, I have interviewed poor and working-class parents who worry that a teacher or a neighbor or a well-meaning stranger will report them to child-welfare authorities, just for doing what they have to do to get by. One working-class single father regularly left his 9- and 11-year-old daughters home alone after school. He said he had no other choice, but he worried that others might not see it the same way. (As is standard in scholarly research, I agreed not to publish the father’s name.)

The middle- and upper-middle-class parents I interviewed never voiced those same concerns. For them, free-range parenting seems relatively risk-free. Consider Lenore Skenazy, the former columnist who coined the term. Skenazy received her share of extreme criticism for a column she wrote 10 years ago about her decision to let her 9-year-old son to ride the New York City subway alone. But no one called the police, and child-welfare authorities never threatened to take her son away. Instead, Skenazy was invited to host her own reality show about parenting.

[Readers respond: Legalizing 'Free-Range' Parenting Is a Step in the Right Direction]

Other examples point to a far-reaching double standard. A study published last month by the sociologists Sinikka Elliott and Sarah Bowen found that poor mothers, and especially poor black mothers, are judged harshly on their children’s health and well-being. Many of those mothers had been reported to child-welfare agencies by doctors or teachers, especially when their children were smaller than average or seemed hungry at school. And even when investigators’ questioning of a parent produced no evidence of abuse or neglect, it left poor mothers and children in a lingering state of fear.

As a relatively well-off white parent, I have personally benefited from the opposite dynamic. My 9-month-old son recently came down with a nasty case of dermatitis. His face, arms, legs, and torso were covered with red, itchy blotches. It took weeks of doctor visits and steroid creams to get the rash under control. In the intervening time, my son got plenty of sideways glances from neighbors, child-care providers, even strangers at the grocery store. But no one called child-welfare authorities. No one questioned my judgment or assumed I was doing something wrong.

And even if they had, I, like many well-off parents, probably would have been able to talk my way out of trouble. My own research finds that middle- and upper-middle-class parents are particularly good at exempting their children from many rules and punishments—partly because of savvy negotiating skills, but partly because their class or race affords them the benefit of the doubt. In the schools I observed, many well-off parents made unreasonable requests. They would ask teachers to excuse their children from having to do homework or to put their children in advanced classes, even if their children’s test scores were too low to qualify. In those cases, well-meaning teachers often wanted to say no. But the teachers were afraid of the parents, worrying that the parents would flood their inbox with emails, complain to the principal, or even threaten to get lawyers involved. So the teachers found it easier to say yes instead.

Utah’s new law—and the free-range-parenting movement more generally—doesn’t seem to account for all this. The law doesn’t specify when free-range parenting becomes neglectful parenting, and that gives authorities an uncomfortable amount of discretion. Utah’s law protects parents from having their children taken away, but only if those children are of “sufficient” age and if those children’s “basic needs are met.” But what counts as sufficient? Is a 9-year-old old enough to stay home alone? And what about children whose parents need to work more to put food on the table or keep a roof over their heads? Will those children be just as free to play at the park alone?

The better-educated, better-paid parents who embrace free-range parenting aren’t preoccupied with questions like these. A major shortcoming of their otherwise well-intentioned movement is that the people who have the most to gain from it—poor and working-class parents—will find themselves held to a different set of expectations.