Is it parental neglect to let children roam?

For someone like me who grew up in the 70s and 80s, it’s pretty noticeable that there’s fewer unsupervised kids engaged in independent outdoor activities like walking to school or playing basketball in the park.  The statistics bear that out.  In 1969, almost nine out of every ten children who lived within a mile of school walked or biked there.  Now, only about a third do so.   Throw in the fact that families now tend to live farther from where their kids go to school, and you have a society where less than 10% of children walk to school.  Barely 1% ride a bike.  And the vast majority of kids do not regularly engage in spontaneous outdoor play.  

It’s not just the tempting screen-based entertainment options and air conditioning that keeps kids indoors.  It’s parents trying to keep their kids safe.  Well-meaning parents have restricted their kids’ unsupervised outdoor activity to protect them from real risks: child predators, accidents, exposure to drugs and alcohol, or even the weather.  Keep the kids at home, or within sight, or at a known location with trusted adult supervision, and the opportunities for tragedy go down, the theory goes. 

Many schools have followed the parenting trend and enacted policies that keep kids safely supervised.  Some schools prohibit walking or biking to school to protect kids from motorists and other hazards.  Further, many schools have reduced or eliminated recess time, no doubt reducing injuries from playground accidents. 

It’s hard to dispute that increasingly vigilant child-rearing has helped keep kids safer from tragedies.  Indeed, kids have never been safer in terms of childhood mortality rates.  Injuries in children under fifteen have decreased by more than half in just the past two decades.

Without question children are safer, from certain kinds of tragedies.  But what about other risks of protective parenting?  Are parents failing to adequately consider substantial, lifelong health risks children face from not enough autonomous outdoor activity and independence?  

A growing body of evidence shows that outdoor play promotes healthy growth and development in children.  Outdoor play boosts a child’s immune system and strengthens bones and brains.   Research has found that through undirected play children develop skills, grow in confidence, and become resilient.   They learn to work in groups, negotiate, resolve conflicts, make decisions, and stand up for themselves.  Uncontrolled play fosters creativity and allows a child to develop new interests.  The American Pediatric Academy has singled out independent play, and in particular outdoor play, as essential to healthy physical, mental, and social development.

Yet as knowledge of the benefits of childhood outdoor activity has grown, childhood outdoor activity has dramatically declined. Instead, kids are getting more and more screen time at earlier ages.  Kids commonly spend 30 hours a week or more using their cell phones.  

Sedentary behavior patterns set in childhood persist into adulthood, and inactive kids become inactive adults.  Moreover, a child is more likely to eat unnecessarily while indoors with food conveniently at hand.  Over the decades that kids’ outdoor activity has declined, childhood and adult obesity has risen dramatically–putting tens of millions of Americans at increased risk for stroke, heart disease, diabetes, depression and mental illness, pain, reduced quality of life and earlier death. The decline in unstructured play with other children has been linked to increases in anxiety, depression, and even suicide in children, adolescents, and young adults.  

And while vigilant parental supervision likely provides protection from certain hazards, parents may be overestimating how much additional safety and security their choices are actually providing.  For example, a child who is driven to school may not be all that much safer from a catastrophic accident or crime than a child who walks to school.  Although a walk to school may be somewhat riskier than a ride in an SUV with a child seat and airbags, several times as many children die from crashes while riding in a car than die from getting hit by a car while on foot or on a bike.  Parents rank risks from child predators at the top of the list of reasons why they don’t let their kids outside, but sensationalized media coverage of tragic crimes may be inflating parents’ perception of the risk that their child will be harmed or killed by a stranger.  While driving a child to school may eliminate that risk entirely, crimes against children by strangers are rare: a child is more likely to be struck by lightning than be abducted and taken far away or held overnight by a stranger, and three-fourths of child sexual abusers are family members or others within parents “circle of trust.”  

A parent’s perception of what is unsafe may be distorted not only by external forces like the media but also by their own moral beliefs and judgments.   In one study, participants were asked to assess the risk of harm to a child in particular situations–for example, a child of a particular age left alone for a specific period of time in a particular location.  Keeping the child’s actual circumstances constant, the researchers varied the reason why the parent had left the child alone.  Participants found the child to be at much higher risk from the event when the parent’s reason for leaving the child alone was one that they found to be morally wrong, such as leaving to meet a lover.  When the reason for leaving the child alone was less morally objectionable to participants–for example, the hypothetical child was left alone accidentally–participants found the risk to the child to be lower, despite the fact that the child’s circumstances had not changed.

Meanwhile, advancement in communication technology would seemingly reduce some risks of allowing a child to independently roam away from home.  Indeed, many if not most parents already equip their children with cell phones, which would allow them to immediately summon help in most scenarios.  Even if a child does not have a cell phone, the parent likely does and thus likely can be reached at any time wherever they are.

At the very least, it seems reasonable that individual parents might depart from the orthodoxy of vigilance and supervision and allow their children greater freedom to roam outdoors.  A movement of free-range parents are letting their free-range kids do just that.  Yet parents who choose to allow their children to independently play outdoors or walk or bike to school or other activities may find themselves responding to an investigation by child protective services … and facing laws that may not favor their parental choices.

Some states are amending their laws to protect parents from charges of neglect based on their choice to allow their children to be without supervision and travel and play independently.  Earlier this year, Colorado became the fourth state to explicitly protect certain free-range parenting decisions.  The Colorado legislature unanimously passed and Governor Jared Polis signed into law an amendment to the state’s child protection statutes that carved out exceptions to the statutory definition of neglect in its child protection statutes.  The amendment redefined neglect by adding the following:

(b) A child is not neglected when allowed to participate in independent activities that a reasonable and prudent parent, guardian, or legal custodian would consider safe given the child’s maturity, condition, and abilities, including but not limited to activities such as: 

(I) Traveling to and from school, including walking, running, bicycling, or other similar mode of travel; 

(II) Traveling to and from nearby commercial or recreational facilities; 

(III) Engaging in outdoor play; and 

(IV) Remaining in a home or other location that a reasonable and prudent parent, guardian, or legal custodian would consider safe for the child.  

As Governor Polis signed the bill into law, he indicated that the law might help the state conserve its limited resources in investigating and addressing serious and real instances of child abuse by reducing false reports.  82% of the nearly 4,000 reports of neglect for lack of supervision in 2019 turned out to be unfounded, and the percentage of unfounded reports had been increasing, according to data cited by one of the bill’s sponsors.

We applaud Colorado and the other states that have passed laws to protect free-range parenting choices, but we suggest going even a bit further.  Under Colorado’s law for example, free-range parents are still subject to some other person’s concept of what “independent activities … a reasonable and prudent parent … would consider safe.”  Does that mean that parents’ choices must be considered safe by all reasonable and prudent parents, since the language requires that a reasonable and prudent parent would consider the activity safe?  Is it significant that the parent must not only have acted reasonably, but also prudently?  And does “safe” mean an absence of danger or risk?  For example, is all independent activity outside the home unsafe if some reasonable and prudent parent would consider the neighborhood unsafe?  Such ambiguities could be interpreted to disallow parents from permitting most independent activity.  We recommend language that protects a wide range of parental choices that a reasonable parent could consider to be justified, given the potential benefits, risks, and family circumstances.  

Also, Colorado only amended its law pertaining to civil child protection actions.  It did not amend its criminal child abuse statute, which makes it a crime when a parent “permits a child to be unreasonably placed in a situation that poses a threat of injury to the child’s life or health.”  Again, the parent is at the mercy that a judge or jury will find that the parent left the child unsupervised for too long or under circumstances that in their view were not safe, without any guidance that prompts the judge or jury to consider the tradeoffs of always shielding children from risks outside the home.   We suggest that states examine and modify their neglect laws to protect free-range parenting choices in both civil and criminal contexts. 

Slade Smith, JD

Slade is Assistant Director of the Applied Health Policy Institute and an Arizona attorney. He is a 2017 graduate magna cum laude of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law and co-recipient of the 2017 Ralph W. Aigler Memorial Award for his professional and scholarly contributions to the college. He is from Columbus, Ohio, and now lives in Tucson, where he regularly enjoys outdoor activities in southern Arizona's beautiful and varied desert and mountain landscapes.

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