Disclaimer: The below is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.
In a safe, quiet neighborhood, you may not think twice about letting your child stay home alone or sit inside your locked vehicle while you run a quick errand. Unfortunately, what is often a parent’s first foray into giving a child trust and independence can turn into a criminal case if someone mistakes it for child neglect.
This is exactly what happened to Kim Brooks, a mother who intentionally left her then-four-year-old son alone in the car to play his game while she ran into a store. Although she was only gone a few minutes, a passerby videotaped the “abandoned” child and reported Brooks to the police.
Whether “free-range parenting” practices like this are actually harmful to a child is a topic that is hotly debated in today’s “age of fear,” as Brooks describes it in her book, “Small Animals.” Free-range parenting promotes a sense of independence in children by allowing them to travel, play, and simply exist without constant adult supervision.
Concerned parents are often quick to call child protective services or the police to report what they perceive as bad parenting — such as the time a neighbor called the police to report an unsupervised five-year-old girl outside. The girl, Dorothy Widen, who was actually eight years old, was simply walking the family dog at her mother’s request, and no further action was taken.
The situation worked out favorably for the Widen family, but it’s not always a happy ending, which leads to the question: How can one practice free-range parenting without slipping over into child neglect? Here are a few things you can do to strike the right balance.
1. Set Boundaries
Every child needs boundaries, and even if you’re practicing free-range parenting, you’ll need to set up some figurative fences for your child. To find the right balance, you’ll have to adapt to each situation. For example, you might take a walk in a park with your children and allow them to explore around you. If the situation is dangerous, you can pull the Mom or Dad card, but you’re also showing you trust your child to make the right choice and be aware of their actions. Child neglect would be to not correct them if they were to walk into traffic or toward a dangerous spot.
2. Know Your Local Laws
Children walking to a park or playing outside with their friends without supervision may not concern a free-range parent, and depending on the age and maturity of the child, it shouldn’t be a problem to others, either. However, it’s important to read up on your state and local laws to make sure you won’t get in trouble for, say, allowing your child to walk to school alone if they’re under a certain age.
3. Understand The Emotional Consequences Of Both Extremes Of Parenting
A responsible parent understands the importance of consequences. As tempting as it may be to dive in and do everything for your children, you have to keep from becoming a “helicopter parent,” which could be as damaging as neglect.
You shouldn’t do everything for your child, but you also shouldn’t leave them to fend for themselves in all they do. For instance, if a child hasn’t completed a school assignment, a free-range parent might let the child’s teacher deal with it and not punish them at home. Additional discipline from you might help your child better understand what they did wrong, but you don’t want to make them feel like you are micromanaging their every move.
If you’re on the fence about leaving your child alone, even briefly, it may give you more peace of mind if you run a background check on adults in your neighborhood. Once you feel more comfortable with who your child is around, it will be easier to loosen the leash a bit.