Utah has just introduced a so-called free-range parenting law. In other words, it is not illegal to allow children to partake in an unsupervised activity, so long as the child is adequately cared for in other ways.
Those activities include letting children “walk, run or bike to and from school, travel to commercial or recreational facilities, play outside and remain at home unattended”. The law does not specify an age but just that the child must have “sufficient age and maturity”.
It apparently was a reaction to over-zealous law enforcement agencies in other states. For example, one couple in Silver Spring, Maryland, was investigated twice for child neglect because they allowed their children to walk home from the local park.
The children were aged 10 and six and were held by police and child protection services for five hours on the second occasion, which one would imagine would be more traumatising than walking a mile home together in a safe area.
The couple, Alexander and Danielle Meitiv, invoked free-range parenting as a defence. They wanted their children to have the kind of childhood they had, with steadily increasing levels of independence.
Lenore Skenazy, the woman who coined the phrase free-range parenting, caused a firestorm when she wrote an article 10 years ago in the New York Sun. She described how her nine-year-old son begged her to take the subway on his own and she allowed him to do so, with a $20 bill and some change for a payphone.
She was called the worst mother in the United States. To be honest, I would not let a nine-year-old take the subway on his own, no matter how much he begged. I am not even sure I would have let my 10-year-old walk home a mile on his own, dragging his little sister who is three years younger, who I know for certain would have resisted his supervision the whole way.
But on the rare occasions when they were both out, my parents did consider me perfectly capable of supervising my five-year-old sister when I was 10. I was a very responsible 10-year-old, like most elder sisters, and thought nothing of it.
But we lived on a farm, where things were somewhat different to urban existences. I remember steering a tractor in first gear, very slowly, around a field as my father piked bales into a trailer. I was probably 10. I was just glad not to have to pike the bales.
He would never have let me out on the road but he was considered ultra-cautious. Other farmers’ kids flew along the road in tractors of dubious roadworthiness from about the age of 14.
I’m not recommending blatant disregard for life and limb as a parenting strategy. But the balance has definitely tipped too far the other way.
Children are overprotected and underexercised. They tend to be involved in organised sport but not to do the kind of tree climbing and endless running and racing that children once did outdoors.
It is part of human development to do things such as hanging upside down from trees and gates and to spin around extremely rapidly. It develops something called vestibular awareness and it is crucial for developing balance.
More and more of our kids are stiff and inflexible with hunched postures from constantly staring into screens.
Those screens are preventing children from playing outside, but so are their parents’ fears.
The irony is that by seeking to protect them, we are exposing them to the far greater dangers that may reside in the tablet or smartphone.
We are conducting a giant experiment involving our children’s brains and attention spans when they are at their most plastic.
Sean Parker, one of the co-founders of Facebook who is now worth an estimated $2.6 billion after his brief stint with the company, has spoken about how social media exploits weaknesses in human psychology. For example, the like button was invented to generate a small dopamine hit.
In an Axios interview, Parker explained that the button was “a social validation feedback loop . . . [The inventors] understood this, consciously, and we did it anyway.”
Social validation feedback loops change our attitudes and behaviours. Steve Jobs famously would not let his own kids use an iPad.
We worry about letting our kids play outside while subjecting them to what former Google employee Tristan Harris calls the greatest hijacking of human attention in history. Neither religion nor governments have much influence, he believes, but online giants such as Google, Facebook and Apple influence more than two billion people on a daily basis.
They also collect endless amounts of data on their every online action, all designed for sale to those who would like them to see their primary identity as consumers.
We worry about the unlikely possibility of the child predator on our street and the sadly more likely possibility of the online paedophile. However, perhaps the reality that our children’s brains are being shaped in long-lasting ways by people we neither know nor can communicate with should command more of our attention and intervention than it currently does.