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What is 'free range parenting'?

The state of Utah just passed a first-of-its-kind law formally legalizing so-called "free range parenting." This is a parenting theory espousing the idea that kids should be allowed to spend a great deal of time away from their parents and interacting with the world.

It is the opposite of "helicopter" parenting, where parents are rarely out of their children's presence and who hover over every decision a child makes. Free range parenting encourages kids to walk to school, go to parks with friends, and play without direct supervision.

Many people see this as perfectly normal. As long as children have the skills to be safe and know where to find an adult in an emergency, many parents see no reason to keep them tied to apron strings. Unfortunately, there have been instances across the nation in which child protective services has made trouble for free range parents, even ruling the parenting philosophy neglectful.

You may recall a 2015 case in which a Maryland couple was investigated because their 10- and 6-year-old went to a park together without an adult. In Illinois, the law explicitly considers it neglect to leave a child under 15 unsupervised. Other states have laws allowing kids as young as six to be unsupervised for certain periods of time. The laws vary widely.

In passing the new law, Utah lawmakers said they were acting in part because free range parents in other states had faced accusations of neglect. In some cases, children have been temporarily removed from their parents after activities like walking to school alone or playing basketball in their own yards.

The new law, which takes effect on May 8, makes clear that it is not child neglect to allow children to undertake activities alone. For example, they may travel to school alone, explore playgrounds without a parent along -- even wait in the car while a parent shops. The child must be mature enough to do these things responsibly, but the law doesn't specify ages. The idea is for child protective services or prosecutors to act on a case-by-case basis rather than assuming a certain age requires constant supervision.

If you are divorced or subject to a child custody agreement, you should consider carefully before you give your child license to roam. Michigan does not have a free range parenting law, and your child's other parent may have different opinions about what level of freedom is appropriate. If this issue is important to you, you may wish to have it added to your custody agreement and parenting plan. A lawyer can help you create or modify your plan with the court.

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