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.